A friend of mine on Facebook recently asked people for their favourite words. It’s always an interesting question, because there are different ways of thinking about it. Do you go for a word which has a meaning that resonates with you, or one that feels nice to say? Something that’s fun to write, something evocative, something arcane, something profane, something personal?
“Cellar door” is a phrase often cited in response to this question. Not because there is anything beautiful or interesting about the doors of cellars as opposed to those of attics, wardrobes or cars. It has nothing to do with its meaning, it’s perceived beauty is purely because of the sound that arrangement of letters makes.
“It at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty,” wrote the American linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, “spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals, and open syllables with vowel nuclei.”
The reputation of the phrase was greatly enhanced by the 2001 film Donnie Darko, which took its “cellar door” loving inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Poe’s Raven was in turn inspired by Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty, in which the eponymous character has a pet raven named Grip. Barnaby’s raven was named after Dickens’ own pet raven.
Grip, the first of three ravens that Dickens owned, died an unfortunate death after licking some lead paint. Dickens wrote that the bird became unwell and was treated by a vet. At first it should signs of improvement and the next morning was able to eat “some warm gruel”, however:
On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but soon recovered, walking twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed “Halloa old girl” (his favourite expression) and died. He behaved throughout with a decent fortitude, equanimity, and self-possession, which cannot be too much admired… The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles. But that was play.
I think that it is unlikely that any other raven in history has had so much influence on the phonaesthetic choices of millions of people around the world. Grip’s power extends beyond phonaesthetics though. There have been three ravens named after him at the Tower of London – the most recent joining in 2012 alongside Jubilee, named in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Supposedly, should the ravens ever leave the Tower, then Britain will fall. There is dispute over how this legend originated – with some saying it dates back no further than the Second World War after a bomb attack by the Luftwaffe left only two birds in the Tower – one named Mabel and, of course, one named Grip. Forget the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group, the world is under the grip of one bird who controls us from beyond the grave.