Phonoaesthetically speaking, the argument tends to open and close at 'cellar door'.
The humble compound noun is famously the English language's equivalent of antiquity's Venus de Milo or modernity's Citroen DS - a thing of pure beauty.
A supposedly even more satisfying jumble of vowels and consonants than a nine-letter double entendre on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, cellar door - female and male, soft and hard - seemed to reach linguistic prominence around the turn of the 20th century, when searching for something perfect from your mouth was a natural enough pastime considering the state of your teeth and the fact wordplay was one of the few things that didn't require daylight.
Over the years, some heavy hitters have come out in support of cellar door's unofficial status as our most mellifluous of words/phrases. Tolkien and CS Lewis are both on the record as CD fetishists, as is Dorothy Parker, although, keeping to form, she qualified her backing with the addendum 'cheque enclosed' remained the two words she most liked to see.
Like the inimitable Mrs Parker, James Joyce took time out from his drinking to consider his own euphonious contribution, also sticking to type by arriving rather grungily at 'cuspidor', a spittoon.
Woody Allen (apologies) mulled the topic with a signature fear of death as the eponymous author in Deconstructing Harry, saying; "The most beautiful words in the English language are not 'I love you', but 'it's benign'."
An ugly, fleshy tool which seems better engineered for inseminating a sea cucumber than susurrating a Shakespearean sonnet.
And that's the alchemy of the alphabet; with just 26 letters we can not only convey our quota of quotidian dread, adoration, warning, wit and wisdom, we get to do so by creating something unique and attractive along the way, all the more gobsmacking considering we do so with the tongue; an ugly, fleshy tool which seems better engineered for inseminating a sea cucumber than susurrating a Shakespearean sonnet.
Dennis Potter's fantastical gumshoe articulates this miracle of the primitive form combining so sublimely with the miracle of communication when, in The Singing Detective, he declares "E-L-B-O-W ... Elbow" to be "the loveliest word in the English language". Importantly, Potter brings the function of writing into the equation, saying elbow works so well not only because of the "sound it makes in your mouth" but also "the shape it makes on the page".
It's incredible to think how as a species we've quickly taken the stick once used to excavate termites from tree trunks to scratch down markings with the profundity and evocation to reduce people to tears, make them swoon; stir hatred, inspire revolution or simply tease out a sanity-saving chortle on the train ride to work.
And you'd still be hard-pressed to cite a more triumphant (or more playful or percipient) example of how those 26 characters of infinite possibility (not forgetting a few strategically positioned dots and dashes) can work in concert with mouth and page than within Nabokov's immortal opening to Lolita, the Russian novelist pulling off one of English literature's greatest coups of alliteration and subversion ... Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
This year's Miles Franklin award winner, Tara June Winch, could almost be paying homage to Nabokov as she kicks off her book, The Yield (itself an exploration of language), with: I was born on Ngurambang - can you hear it? -Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words.
Very beautiful, very confronting and very Australian; a reminder of how our own continent's gnarly Strine has been forged over the centuries; buffeted by the wind, baked by the sun, eroded by the waves.
Which brings to mind those Central Coast homeowners teetering on the edge of catastrophe after the ocean swallowed up the foundations of their piles during the recent 'east coast low' - for them a frightening weather pattern but, in the right company, three of the most beautiful words ever uttered this side of the black stump.
For us, situated as we are between the ranges and the sea, an 'east coast low' means rain, something we haven't seen enough of (not that we'll ever claim to) and we're hopeful again at predictions of more Tasman turbulence over the next few days.
The type of storm that pounds NSW beaches with Big Wednesday waves is the same transformative phenomenon which creeps up the escarpment, bringing the smell of oily fish and the taste of salt to our inland bush community. When the hectopascals plummet in the right place, we become shrouded in a misty magic during which strange things can happen; like the time I was jogging down by an old bridge and looked up to find a saturated sea eagle staring quizzically down from a tree, as if to ask "Where the hell am I?"
In these days of climate awareness, our very vocabulary is evolving with the extreme weather. It's through our living language we can quickly decipher the ramifications of approaching bushfires, storms, 'rain events' (although plain 'rain' sufficed just fine). What were once laissez-faire 'extratropical cyclones' are now more trackable 'east coast lows'; a cut-through shorthand alerting the public of what's to come, triggering images of bulk tankers beached like whales or McMansions slipping off cliffs.
So ingrained in the meteorological argot has 'east coast low' become, one wonders if, as with hurricanes, these magnificent creatures don't deserve their own monikers? And perhaps the naming rights should go to our writers - exponents of beautiful words, experts who can capture the kind of elemental power which still has us so very much at its mercy.
Obviously, Aussie authors, those attuned to our ancient country like Tara June Winch, would be perfect for the gig but it's intriguing to consider what Nabokov might have come up with.
East. Coast. Lo.?
- B.R. Doherty is a regular columnist.