Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Cellar Door

Last night when we were re-watching Donnie Darko, I was struck by a scene in which Donnie’s English teacher tells the class that a famous linguist once described ‘cellar door’ as the most beautiful combination of words in the English language.

What struck me is that one of the two books I’m currently reading (Stephen King’s On Writing) has a picture of a cellar door on its cover. It’s a nice picture, bright and sunny, all fresh paint and flowers, probably meant to suggest the secrets of the craft that he meditates upon in the book or perhaps the way in which writers draw upon the contents of their own personal cellars in their writing. Either way, a cellar door.

In the introduction to the book, King relates a story about a conversation with Amy Tan in which she says no one ever asks her about the language in author Q & A’s. It made me wonder if the cover isn’t a nod to that famous linguist’s notion about the most beautiful combination of words in English. I’m only a few pages in, so maybe he makes the choice of cover image clear later on, but I can’t help but wonder if this is a nod to that famous linguist.

But who is this linguist? Was it a made up bit for Donnie Darko or is it an actual claim? According to Wikipedia, the linguist is none other than JRR Tolkein. This is interesting because the other book I’m reading now is Tolkein’s Unfinished Tales.

This kind of synchronicity occurs frequently with the books I read and the movies I see. I often feel that I’m reading certain books at the right time, the moment in my life in which they’ll have the greatest impact on me. Sometimes I get a yen to read some book that’s sat on my shelf for years and it always seems good that I didn’t read it earlier or later.

Whatever it is, it never ceases to fascinate me, and I find it interesting that there should be these layers of connections between the two books I’m reading and the movie I saw last night.

I’m waiting for my ipod to play something from Miles’ Cellar Door Sessions before the day is out.

As to the most beautiful combination of English words? I don’t know what I’d choose. I never thought about it until today, but something keeps creeping into my head when I think of it: Ever since my first astronomy classes I’ve loved event horizon which evokes feelings of secrets and darkness, mystery and light, distance and time, and the terrible beauty of nature. At least for me.


  1. Yeah, cellar door is a good one, but I’ve always liked “grammatical patterns.” The herky jerky upswing of the ah’s and t’s finished off by the downswept erns has always reminded me of a roller coaster ride for the tongue.

  2. “Grammatical Patterns” is good. I’ve been saying it and enjoying the feel.

    As to pronunciations, I’ve always been a fan of ph as f thing (hence dogs named Daphne, Phoebe and Zephyr, that last including a y in the middle of the word).

    Actually Zephyr is another favorite of mine. Hence the name of my first dog.

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