Is the most beautiful phrase in English . . . cellar door?
The fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien, who was also a philologist, might well be the linguist she had in mind. He mentioned the idea of cellar door’s special beauty in a speech in 1955 and is often given credit for it. Other supposed authors abound; the story is tangled. But Tolkien, at least, can be ruled out as the originator. He was, after all, just 11 years old in 1903 when a curious novel called “Gee-Boy” — which also alludes to the aesthetic properties of cellar door — was published by the Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper. Hooper’s narrator writes of the title character: “He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare, (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setbos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Junfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”
Tolkien wasn’t the only one; H. L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, C.S. Lewis, and Norman Mailer seem to have considered it a contender too.