Cellar door is a combination of words in the English language once characterized by J.R.R. Tolkien to have an especially beautiful sound. In his 1955 essay "English and Welsh", commenting on his affection towards the Welsh language, Tolkien wrote:
- "Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar door is 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant."
Tolkien's discourse is the most likely origin of this concept and the only documented one. Nonetheless, this phrase has been subject to a legendary degree of misattribution. In common circulation, this pronouncement is commonly attributed to "a famous linguist". (It may be noted that J. R. R. Tolkien, while more commonly noted as an author, was also a linguist.) It has also been mistakenly attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Frost although no such texts have surfaced. (Dorothy Parker is also quoted as saying that the most beautiful words in the language are "cheque enclosed.") The most detailed account alludes to a survey, possibly conducted around the 1940s, probing the word in the English language generally thought to be the most beautiful. Contributing to this survey, American writer H. L. Mencken supposedly claimed that a Chinese student, who knew little or no English, especially liked the phrase cellar door — not for what it meant, but rather for how it sounded. Some accounts describe the immigrant as Italian rather than Chinese. Another account suggests that it is a mispronunciation of the French words C'est de l'or, which can be translated as "It is gold".
The phrase is also introduced in the 2001 film Donnie Darko, in which the character Karen Pomeroy (played by Drew Barrymore), a literature teacher, states: "A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words, that cellar door was the most beautiful." In the DVD commentary, director Richard Kelly vaguely (and mistakenly) attributes this remark to Edgar Allan Poe.
- The production company that created the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is called "Celador", which is Spanish for "Watchman".
- The cover of Stephen King's On Writing is a photograph of a cellar door.
- The phrase Cellar door is also used to refer to the point where tourism meets winemaking — a shop at a winery that allows visitors to taste and buy the wine made there or using grapes from that area.
- Monty Python's "Woody and Tinny Words" sketch finds humor in the pure sounds of English words and their inherent beauty or ugliness.
- In Larry Niven's A World Out of Time, the city that the protagonist wakes up in, after 240 years of cryogenic sleep, is called Selerdor.
- Also see Inherently funny words.
- Appears in Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done"
- The phrase is also used in the song "Angelsea" by Cat Stevens.
- A 1970 Miles Davis album is entitled "The Cellar Door Sessions", also featuring Keith Jarrett. It was recorded on December 16-19 at a club in Washington, DC.