“So,” I said, “what’s your favorite English word?”
She thought for just a moment and said, “funeral.” And I immediately busted out laughing. She did not appreciate it.
After I calmed down she explained that she liked the way it sounded and rolled off her tongue. I found this interesting. As a native English speaker I would have never considered funeral to be among my favorite words, but someone from the outside looking in could get around the intrinsic meaning and appreciate it solely for its sound.
While working in Korea I’ve been able to ask this question to my students and I’ve gotten varied responses. I’ve heard anything from “beautiful,” to “cigarette.” I’ve heard “sexy,” “dinosaur,” and “chocolate.” I like asking this question because it’s fun, but also because it reveals a little something about the person doing the answering. They either like the way a word sounds or they like it because of its meaning. Rarely have a I met a non-native speaker that likes a word for both reasons.
I could be wrong but I tend to think that this reveals how one thinks about language. Liking a word for just its meaning is quite easy. My students chose “chocolate” because everyday they’re reminding me of their affinity for it. Liking a word for just its sound is also easy. It’s a combination of sounds that, for whatever reason, one finds appealing to hear or say.
But most native speakers, I assume, like a word for the combination of sound and meaning. To answer my own question: My favorite word is “alas.” I chose this years ago shortly after my conversation with the surly Russian in the commissary. Both the vowels and consonants are soft and the ending s makes it sound as if it were a whisper. Also, it it’s an expression of weary discontent–a poetic notion that is to me beautiful because of its expression of tragedy. It’s been my favorite for nearly a decade and there are no signs of that changing.
So to end, I’ll ask you one of my favorite questions. What is your favorite word?