THE UGLIEST WORDS IN ENGLISH
by Ross Eckler
Word Ways, 1992
More than twenty years ago, Wilfred Funk proposed chimes, dawn, golden, hush, lullaby, luminous, melody, mist, murmuring and tranquil as the ten most beautiful words of the English language. More recently, Willard Espy generated gonorrhea, gossamer, Shenandoah, summer afternoon and wisteria for the Book of Lists #2 (1980). In the February 1971 and February 1972 Word Ways, Philip Cohen listed (among others) baralepton, barquentine, carioca, eclectic, jeremiad, nimbostratus, opodeldoc, pimperlimplimp, rumramruf and zinfandel. Richard Lederer devoted several pages of Crazy English (Pocket Books, 1989) to the same topic. Most such words have positive connotations contributing to their choice, but exceptions such as nevermore, diarrhea and cuspidor have also been nominated.
Curiously, the inverse problem--that of identifying the ugliest words in English--seems not to have been addressed. The Book of Lists (1977) did consider a closely-related problem: the worst-sounding English words according to the National Association of Teachers of Speech in 1946. Their ten examples were cacophony, crunch, flatulent, gripe, jazz, phlegmatic, plump, plutocrat, sap and treachery. When Willard Espy was asked by the editors of the Book of Lists to prepare a list of ten ugliest words, his initial reaction was "I know no ugly English words. I consider them all bundles of shimmering loveliness..." but finally agreed to assemble "the most abhorrent stench of words that ever made its way to the human brain through the human nostril." He at once turned to the wordsmiths of Word Ways for suggestions, and this article is the result.
The ugliness (or beauty) of a word is, to put it bluntly, elusive. Is it completely in the eye (ear) of the beholder, or can criteria be formulated for deciding such matters? I tentatively suggest that ugliness relates to the sound and the meaning of a word, not to its printed appearance. (Or can one rank letters of the alphabet in terms of their ugliness?) Ugly words may be worst-sounding, but the best examples are more than that; ugly words should ideally have both unpleasant sounds and repellent meanings.
One genre of ugly words ought to be those that are difficult to pronounce because of a cluster of clashing consonants. My favorite example is TEXTS, with PUTSCH, MOLYBDENUM, HASH-ISH and ANGST runners-up. More generally, ugly words seem more likely than others to contain several different hard consonants (hard C, hard G, B, D, P, T) and eschew liquid ones (soft C, soft G, L, M, N, R). There are many examples: GOBBLEDYGOOK (my favorite), BANKRUPTCY, WINDBAG, TIGHTWAD, CARBUNCLE, SPUTNIK, BUTTOCK, CRACKPOT, TROGLO-DYTE, CUCKOLD, FLAPDOODLE and CLODHOPPER. These, it should be noted, all have two or mroe syllables; one-syllable words such as GOB, SKUNK, WRETCH, FUNK (what would Wilfred say?) and CORPSE don't quite scale the heights of super-ugliness. Perhaps one should seek a mixture of hard consonants and hissing ones (F, S, SH, V, X) as in SHISH KEBAB, KVETCH and EXPECTORATE. And can one posit that the short-U vowel sound is also more likely to appear, as in MUGWUMP, BEDBUG or PLUG-UGLY?
What should one do with words having split personalities, liquid sounds but vile meanings suich as SLUDGE, SYPHILIS or DIARRHEA, or hard sounds but innocent meanings such as JUKE-BOX, DEBUTANTE, TURBOPROP or PIGGYBACK? If sound and sense are not in synch, either sound-alone or sense-alone should be especially abhorrent if the word is to qualify as genuinely ugly.
Finally, one ought to avoid obscure words that nobody knows (medical jawbreakers come to mind), but I would not like to exclude a fine example like BROBDIGNAGIAN thereby. And, one should probably exclude proper names, although in this election year (1992) it is hard to refuse KENNEBUNKPORT, a K-B-K-P-T combo that sounds like a trunk falling down a flight of stairs!
Back to Word Ways articles
Back to Word Ways home