Mother, memory, cellophane.
I was listening to NPR the other day (because I’m really cool), and heard an interview with a woman who mentioned that in 1940, the American public voted ‘cellophane’ as the third most beautiful word in the English language, right behind ‘mother’ and ‘memory.’ Being the avid lover of language that I am, I decided to analyze this and unfortunately, you’re going to have to read about my findings and hope that they’re really intriguing. Or just scroll down and look at some BACON ART!
I’m sure everyone’s heard that ‘cellar door’ is supposedly the most beautiful word in English (here’s a great linguistic article about it and other so-called beautiful words) due to its phonaesthetic traits. It’s rumored that Edgar Allen Poe chose “Nevermore” as the refrain of “The Raven” because it was the closest word he could think of to cellar door. I’ve also heard that ‘diarrhea’ is a beautiful word in its form. The word’s form, that is.
So obviously, I’d guess that the three words from 1940 were beautiful for semantic and not aesthetic reasons. I get ‘mother’ and ‘memory.’ But ‘cellophane’? Who thinks of that as beautiful? Well, apparently people in the Depression era did.
“Visual selling became an important part of retailing in the 1930s, in part because of the growth of self-service markets. In the Depression era, drug, hardware, and grocery stores were redesigned so that merchandise was openly displayed.” [here's the source, don't sue me]
If you asked people today what the most beautiful word is for meaning’s sake, I’d bet this wouldn’t be one of them. But 70 years ago, cellophane was a real lifesaver for people surviving through the worst depression in history, who needed to save some money to preserve their food, or make a quick fix (Scotch tape was the first cellophane tape), or to preserve their… babies?
The invention of this transparent piece of film revolutionized the way we eat food and saved people — especially in the time of a depression and war — hundreds of dollars they didn’t have.
It was (and still is) an indispensable piece of technology that has refined our culture’s sense of practicality and 70 years later, we barely take notice of it. So what about now? What, in this sense, can we call beautiful? After all, our country has gone through the financial plight of a 10-year war and a burdening recession that has left some people just as disparate as they were in the early 40s.
The ‘Internet’? ‘Facebook’? They certainly change the way we live. They’ve revolutionized communication, for better or for worse, in ways that can be argued as beautiful and terrifying.
Or maybe all we have left is diarrhea. What do I know?
This entry was posted on April 26, 2011 by Michelle Bacon. It was filed under language, social issues and was tagged with cellar door, cellophane, great depression, internet, language, linguistics, memory, mother, npr, phonaesthetics, semantics.