Wednesday, December 30, 2015

10 Most Beautiful Words, and a Beautiful Lady

photo courtesy of
"Wilfred J. Funk, poet, lexicographer and president of Funk and Wagnalls, once listed what he considered the ten most beautiful words in the English language--'beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letters.' His list, compiled after a 'thorough sifting of thousands of words,' is: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody." (source: One Thousand Beautiful Things, 1947)

Wilfred Funk (1883-1965) was one-time president of his family's publishing business, a company known for producing encyclopedias and dictionaries. He not only made a living with words, he played with words, rearranged them, relished them.

Clara Margaret, at age seventeen
I was reminded of beautiful words this past week as we celebrated my mother's life after her passing the day before Christmas Eve. Kind words. Comforting words. Strengthening words.

And so, following Wilfred's example (his list was written in 1932), I've compiled my own list of Ten Most Beautiful Words in the English Language. Unlike Wilfred, the words on my list may not come from a systematic sifting of thousands of words nor roll off the tongue with any particular kind of music. But they do express the beauty of a special lady, my mom:

          family                         dignity
          friends                        kindness
          love                             loyalty
          compassion              sacrifice
          courage                     grit

She'll also be remembered by the many quilts she stitched, the times around the table playing dominoes with kids, grandkids, great-grands--and the flash of her welcoming smile.

one of Mom's quilts

She will be missed a whole big bunch.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

String, and Variations of: Icy Phenomena in the Neighborhood

December 2015 string phenomenon
"You will find truth more quickly through delight than gravity. Let out little more string on your kite." --Alan Cohen

Okay, another mystery to be solved. Has anyone else seen this phenomenon?

Hubby looked out the front window the other day only to see a small tree in our front yard apparently decorated for Christmas, though it isn't an evergreen. It was draped with what looked like thin, wispy garlands. Upon closer examination, he saw loops of frosted, icy strings. Needle-thin icicles hung on some of the other branches. What, had someone come along in the night to play a trick on us? Maybe a little fairy spun her magic under cover of darkness. Did someone try to fly a kite and got their string tangled, reminiscent of Charlie Brown?

We marveled and we questioned and we wondered.

We conjectured. Maybe the strings resulted from a brave spider attempting to spin a web on a cold morning. But then again, maybe not. For if that were the case, wouldn't we find a design more like this?
icy spider web: google images
Nor were the strings 'hair ice'.  (What? I didn't know such a thing existed until I tried to solve my mystery!) I learned about hair ice when I came across this article: Here's How a Strange Phenomenon Called 'Hair Ice' Forms on Dead Trees, The White Ice Filaments Look A Lot Like Cotton Candy.

hair ice: google images
Nor are they frost flowers, something else I'm learning about...

frost flower: google images

... nor hoar frost... 
hoar frost: google images

...or rime ice
rime ice: google images
Did you know there were so many variations--and names--of ice creations? I sure didn't, and I still don't understand much about what makes them different. But isn't the subject intriguing?

Want to see more? Check out these sites:

The phenomenon found in our yard was certainly not as dramatic as any of the above. Simple strings and threads don't catch the eye with as much beauty and wonder. But still, look what happened. The discovery prompted exploration into a new subject and led to some delightful photos and wondrous images.

What is the name of my local phenomenon? I'll probably never know for certainty. But think of it: ice strings, kite strings, stringing words together--don't they all have something in common? Discovery and delight in the journey. Exploration of the unusual. A reminder to keep your eyes open and notice details. A prompt to let out a little more string on your kite!

Any discoveries you've come across lately that have helped you do this? 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Words and Music, Take 2: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and More

photo courtesy google images

"Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret room
Piled high with cases in my father's name;
Piled high, packed large,--where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastadon, I nibbled here and there..."

My, oh, my, where did November go? Much activity and a number of details consumed the days, and before I could blink, the month was gone. However, like the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I nibbled here and there in books. Not only that, secrets were uncovered--though credit goes not to a garret room but to the marvel that we now know as a Google search.

In my last post, Words and Music, I featured an anonymous quote that starts with the line, "Words are instruments of music..." I found it in an old book copyrighted 1947, and was intrigued by the metaphor. Though I tried to find its source, I had no luck. Oh, well, I tried. And that was that.

Or so I thought.

Theodore Tilton
Imagine my surprise when a friend found the source and sent me a link to it. Obviously his research skills are more developed than mine! The words were written by one Theodore Tilton, an American newspaper editor and poet, and are found in his book from 1870, Sanctum Sanctorum, Proof Sheets from an Editor's Desk. In the chapter "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (p. 51), Tilton wrote: "She knew the true art of choosing words...Words are instruments of music; an ignorant man uses them for jargon, but when a master touches them they have unexpected life and soul. Some words sound out like drums; some breathe memories sweet as flutes; some call like a clarinet; some shout a charge like trumpets; some are sweet as children's talk, and others rich as a mother's answering back. The words which have universal power are those that have been keyed and chorded in the great orchestral chamber of the human heart. Some words touch as many notes at a stroke as when an organist strikes ten fingers upon a keyboard...No finer instance of this skill is found in the whole realm of good English, out of Shakespeare, than in the writings of Mrs. Browning, particularly in those who which pay homage to the affections."

Whoa. Mr. Tilton held Mrs. Browning's writings in high esteem for sure. But more than that was the thrill of discovery all these years later. A mid-20th century writer couldn't find the source for a quote written in the 19th century, but by the 21st century, there it is!

source: About the Brownings
Of course there is so much history in all of this, as is often the case. Reading more about Elizabeth opened up a whole new area of study, and I nibbled Google's smorgasbord about her--things like how she married Robert Browning, another beloved poet of the time, when she was 40 after being an invalid and recluse for a number of years. She was six years older than he. Three years later she gave birth to their only child, a son they nicknamed Pen. A beloved poet, she wrote on a variety of social injustices, including Italy's fight for independence, women's issues, child labor, and slavery. Much of her work reflected her Christian faith. And Tilton, too, has a history himself (here) that included his passion for the game of chess. So much information out there, one can get lost...

Maybe I identify more with Ms. Browning than I realize--a mouse nibbling between the ribs of a mastadon-size wealth of information known as the internet. But December is here, and I'm thinking it's time to get out of the garret and back to the writing desk.

How about you, any subjects you've feasted on lately?

More quotes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

"The little cares that fretted me,
I lost them yesterday
Among the fields above the sea,
Among the winds at play." 

"With stammering lips and insufficient sound I strive and struggle to deliver right the music of my nature."

"Earth's crammed with heaven...
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes."

"Light tomorrow with today."