Daily Archives: June 28, 2016

melliloquent, melliloquence

Sweet words butter no bread. But they may put honey on your crumpets, and isn’t that even a little bit better?

Who doesn’t want to have a bit of blarney, a silver tongue, the power to charm with shimmering lexis and lithe syntax? Well, I guess some people don’t – there are those who pride themselves in being plain-spoken. But even plain speech can have the power of persuasion, and some of the sweetest words are direct and unadorned.

What, in fact, is the key characteristic of honey-tongued speech? Is it apposite use of adjectives and epithets? Is it careful control of the phonemes and rhythms? Is it striking use of imagery? Is it flattery of the addressee? Which of these is the sweetest sentence: “The sight and sound of you pulls me like iron filings to a rare earth magnet”; “You are a cross of the best parts of Cate Blanchett and Jeremy Irons”; “Your clothing caresses the eyes and your speech is a fabric of electric sparkles”; “You are visually elegant and orally melliloquent”?

I’m sure it comes down to taste. Not even everyone likes the taste of honey, for that matter. But this is about melliloquence, and the mell in there refers to honey, just as it does in mellifluous. In English it also has an echo of mellow, which smooths it out like oak aging, but that is an etymologically unrelated word. So is marshmallow, but sweet soft words can be as marshmallows to the mouth and ear. And somehow we overlook the overlap with smell.

If you ask people what the most beautiful words are, some will choose words with beautiful senses, but others will hew towards certain sounds. The sounds typically lean in the same direction: flowing vowels, nasals, a few soft voiceless sounds, and especially the liquids /r/ and /l/. Add the crisp whisper of voicelessness and the ll of Welsh is a sure-fire charmer, but we in English don’t have that phoneme. It’s no great surprise that Tolkien based his two Elvish languages on Welsh and Finnish (see namárië). I recall one person’s list of the most beautiful words – well, I recall two of the words it included: Shenandoah (a popular choice, I think) and diarrhea. Which does have a nice sound to it, the word I mean; its denotation detracts a bit much for many people.

A word that was not on the list was melliloquent. I feel confident that this was at least in part because the author didn’t know it. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? It starts with that soft, warm nasal, and then flows through parallel liquids; a crisp stop in the back moves into a glide, then another nasal and a stop. On the page it has those stripes llil and it is such a nice long word. And it means something so nice: sweet words, honeyed speech. Who doesn’t like to hear nice things? Well, I guess some people don’t, or at least not invariably – some dislike hearing good things about competitors, and some are uncomfortable with receiving praise, even though to others compliments are the ultimate honey (entrappingly so – even more than a spider’s web, honeyed words lead to the undoing of many flies).

I suppose the ultimate melliloquence would be words that have all of the above: praise, strikingly beautiful imagery, evocative and novel vocabulary, and an exquisite ensemble of sounds. And, of course, sincerity.

I hope you weren’t expecting an example. I kinda suck at that stuff.

Anyway, different people like different things. I’m sure each of you has encountered examples of exquisite melliloquence. I won’t mind hearing of any that you might recall.