Alex Steer

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It's the size that counts, not what you do with it

564 words has a resident word columnist, Dr Robert Beard, and he's written a list of The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English. Fact.

There are lots of these lists, of course - I'm just singling this one out because it's in front of me - and it seems amazingly common for people to harbour a 'favourite word' (and just as common to badger lexicographers for theirs). Looking through this one, you notice some startling things which are best expressed, not in words, but in numbers.

The words are long.

The list contains 944 letters, and 312 syllables by my reading. (I've erred slightly on the side of caution with some words, too.) The mean syllable count for words in the list is (obviously) 3.12, the mean length 9.44 letters. Even within this set, there's a bias towards longish words. Here's a graph of the frequency of syllable counts:

Chart - most beautiful words distribution

You might think, is this fair? How do we know how long is long? Well, it's a bit hard to find good data on the whole of the English language, as you might imagine. But as a proxy we do have the list of the 100 commonest English words drawn from the very large and well-balanced Oxford English Corpus.

Here the average number of syllables (again, by my reading) is 1.11, and the average word length is 3.38 letters. Here's the distribution:

Chart - most common words distribution

You'll also notice there is absolutely no overlap between the words on the two lists. In fact, and it would be hard to judge this objectively except by doing a frequency analysis of a very large corpus, I'd say that most of the 'most beautiful' words are pretty far from being common.

Why do we put so much value on long, obscure words? Perhaps it's because there's a hint of priestcraft about them: we know that if we know them, and use them, we might sound clever, or be able to bamboozle (sorry) other people with them. But is that beautiful? I'd argue the opposite: that it is one of the ugliest uses of language. Words are, after all, not precious stones or museum pieces but tools for communicating. The ones we should value are the ones that make people able to understand us, and most of those, day to day, are the workmanlike common words we barely notice. Yes, there are a lot of obscure words - technical vocabulary, terms of art or pieces of conceptual language - that convey a lot of meaning to the right people at the right time, and that can save effort and even save lives. (Think of medical terms, for example.) But there again the beauty lies in the utility. Between the common and the beautiful, choose whatever gets you heard and understood.

# Alex Steer (30/01/2009)