Library: The Most Beautiful Word?

A language wonk weighs in

March 24, 2014

You might have missed it, but a passage in author Christopher Hitchens’s 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, triggered a happy buzz among library bloggers at the time, and it can still judder the heart of library lovers. These days any good word about libraries is cheering, and Hitchens exalted the word library itself. He wrote, “The lexicographer Wilfred Funk was once invited to say what he thought was the most beautiful word in the English language and nominated ‘mange.’ If asked, I would without hesitation give the word ‘library.’”

How many would agree? Never mind Hitchens’s dubious attribution of mange to Funk (whose true favored words—hush, chimes, and others—are well documented). When someone as keenly literate as Hitchens calls library the most beautiful English utterance, one wants to stop and think about it, to roll the term around on the tongue, to consider what constitutes beauty in a word and how library measures up.  

A wallflower at the beauty ball

Surprisingly, if you agree that library belongs in the pantheon of beautiful terms, you’ll find yourself in slim company. Even those who might love the word’s meaning and associations seem discouraged by its sound, a weighty factor in linguistic beauty contests. Comb the various lists of terms that language mavens have judged fairest in the land; you will not find Hitchens’s favorite among them, not even in lists whose abundance of words with l’s and rs testify to the appeal of those liquid consonants. Funk, for example, included lullaby, luminous, and tranquil among his top 10 in 1932, and in a larger selection named such phonic kin to library as rosemary and amaryllis—but not library itself. 

In language professor Robert Beard’s The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English (2009), library sits it out while lissome, lithe, and leisure join the dance. Nor does distinguished word-lover Phil Cousineau take library in hand as he waltzes with louche, lulu, and hundreds more adored terms in two recent collections (Wordcatcher, The Painted Word ).

Does library fare any better in a polling of nonexperts? In November 2010, the blog asked for “the best-sounding word or phrase in English.” By early 2014, thousands of suggestions had been offered by some 1,900 respondents. The word library appeared . . . once. After more than 900 people responded to a later variation of the query (“the most beautiful word”), the partial tally was: oddball, 1; syphilis, 1; diarrhea, 1; library, 0.

Is it something we said? I speak as a member of the library profession as well as a writer on language, and I achingly wonder why—outside Hitchens’s kind support—our beloved L-word has been snubbed. An ultimate insult: The language journal Vocabula Review eschewed library in a best-words list, but found room for the slimy limaceous, a term meaning sluglike.

Etymology and the fatal r

Moving back, back in time through the development of library, before Chaucer’s use of lybrarye in 1384, before the Old French librairie (collection of books) and Latin librärium (chest for books), we find ourselves worming into, of all places, a tree’s inner bark. Early Romans called such bark liber, and they processed it to be used as a writing material. Liber thus became the (Latin) word for paper and book.

Good things can come from fibrous inner bark. Think of cinnamon. Aspirin. Paper itself. And how nice it might have been had liber evolved into a more euphonious word for our institution, one that Americans could say without rupturing a lip muscle. For library’s tragic flaw, when it comes to euphony, is the awkward leap from the b of lib to the r’s of rar. Just voice the word slowly and you’ll feel the radical repositioning of sound organs—lips and tongue—to produce the bilabial plosive b and retroflexed r’s, influenced by their accompanying vowels. (If you’re British, you may find the transition easier—just a touch of the tongue to the palate for weak r’s, rather than the curled yogic position maintained by the Yankee tongue.)

At the li-berry . . .  

All those labors in producing library’s first and second r’s have led naturally toward a phenomenon called “dissimilation”—changing or dropping a sound when it appears close to a like sound. Enter the pronunciations libary, liberry, and libray.

The cringe some librarians and others experience on hearing these variations may owe more to the violation of a perceived “literate” standard than to the aesthetics of sound. Face it: Libary is a bonny little word, easy to say. Had it, instead of library, evolved from liber as the standard term for so admired an institution, it might have scored a beauty crown or two, with high marks for both sound and symbolism. But libary didn’t so evolve; the closest it came might have been lyberary, a Middle English variant of librarye. And while the French word for bookseller, librarie, seems to have drifted into libaire (just one r) in a few contemporary instances, no such drift is going to knock an R out of LIBRARY on entablatures across the land.

What could change is the status of certain pronunciations, rising from nonstandard or “incorrect” to alternate standard. Dictionaries already note that the pronunciations LIE-burree, and LIE-bree are widely used by educated speakers, while LIE-berree is associated with the “less educated” and very young. It is all very nuanced, requiring a sharp ear and a mean spirit for making judgment calls.   

You cant fix ugly

But back to library as the inherited ugly-duckling term for the institution. If the word were more euphonious, if it rang with beauty, would Oliver Wendell Holmes have shunned it in his five-stanza poem dedicating the new Boston Public Library (BPL) in 1888? Would today’s librarians, haunted by the word’s antiquated associations (books, buns, shush), feel compelled to seek ever more terms to augment or displace it? Unfortunately most such terms are even clunkier, however aspirational. Try putting one of these in a sonnet: Information center, media center, community collaboration space. Not to mention the nails-on-blackboard sound of special-program names: makerspace, homago space (a place for teens to “hang out, mess around, and geek out” at BPL).   

Of course, even the most euphonious terms can become disfavored owing to their historical associations. Museum, a hummable song of a word, has its own musty past, giving rise to Discovery Center and other altered names. And yet one term, for a collection of books, has emerged intact from the mists of time and even finds itself attached to the very latest, trendiest, outgrowth of library services: It is the bubbly ancient Greek term bibliothēkē, derived from biblion, “book,” and thēkē, “box, case, receptacle.”

Two journeys

Sometime probably in the early second millennium, biblio, with its blend of appealing sounds, traveled from Greece into Europe along the currents of language, establishing itself in book-related words throughout the continent. The Greek thēkē would show up as well, landing in terms having to do with containers or collections of books (and in an Old English word for the Bible, Bibliotheca). Meanwhile, the liber family of book-related terms was making its way north out of Rome. It seems that at one uncertain point a culture might have derived its name for a large collection of books from either biblio or liber. As it worked out, biblio triumphed handsomely on the continent, while liber won the consolation prize in England. (Liber also formed the basis of terms for “bookshop” and “bookseller”—librarie, libraire, libreria, etc.—in much of Europe by way of late Latin libraria.)

Biblio did make it into English, of course, in words such as bibliography and bibliophile. Some English dictionaries also include the head word bibliotheca (th as in three), defining it as a collection of books, a library, or a list of books. I’ve never known it to be used, but I do like saying it with that lisped th, or eruditely voicing its plural, bibliothecae.

English, in short, got the lip-contorting library—at least as pronounced in American English—while other languages embraced biblioteca, bibliothèque, bibliothek, and other such mellifluous words for book collections and, by extension, their managers. While proclaiming oneself a librarian brings no shame, imagine singing out a term with operatic possibilities, such as the Italian bibliotecario. Figaro, Figaro, bibliotecario! I would sing it all day.       

Biblio rides again—in Texas

In September 2013, Bexar County in Texas opened the nation’s first so-named BiblioTech in San Antonio, offering ebooks and a range of digital tools and resources in a dedicated new building. A branch now serves jurors and others in the County Courthouse. The BiblioTech, circulating nary a physical book, made national news as the first successful “all-digital” public library; yet it chose not to use library in its name.

Are we seeing the beginning of the end for the L-word? Could bibliotech find its way into hearts, minds—and ears—as the term for our thing? The word is easy enough to say and, like its continental cousins, has a nice bounce to it. But what does it call to mind? Biblio seems an odd choice for a supposedly bookless operation, unless one accepts the staff’s insistence that they have books, by the thousands, being lent and researched in digital form. Okay—maybe not a warm and fuzzy sense of biblio here, but a literate one. As for tech in this context, it may suggest the hard edge of machines and circuits; but as a derivative of Greek téknē (“art, skill”) and technologia (“systematic treatment”) it is entirely appropriate to the mission. So: Books (in the broad sense). Art. Skill. Systematic. Sounds like a seductive case for BiblioTech as our new institutional name.  

The light

But I am not yet seduced. I suppose that library is too long in my blood, from the time I worked in the soaring Italianate reading room of the Library of Congress, through my years at the American Library Association, to this day—when I get so pumped saying I live around the corner from “my” library, even if the L-word still cracks my lips on a cold day.

Maybe you can’t fix ugly, but ugly, as we all know, can come to be perceived as something beautiful. Looking at the word library, one doesn’t have to see majestic spaces, ghosts of history, beaming kids, scholars at work without fear, or even the “Paradise” that Jorge Luis Borges imagined would be a library “in form and image.” Language observer Cousineau has remarked, “The words we tend to embrace possess the sublime quality that Italian painters call luce di sotto, the light below.” What I see when I look at library is an abstract light (maybe the li part suggests it), a light whose extinction would surely signal a return of the Dark Ages. (This was similarly expressed by Mitch Hager, The Norman Williams Public Library (1985), p. 25,) 

As for sound alone, well, I give up on library. When English-speakers take part in “most-beautiful-to-the-ear” surveys, they usually choose words or phrases with the melodiousness associated with romance languages. Among these choices the most celebrated is cellar door, touted as the ultimate combination of euphonious English sounds (and said to be first proposed by J. R. R. Tolkien).

Cellar door is lovely enough to the ear, and I would gladly use it as a name for a pet canary. But for bottom-line beautiful, for the most beautiful word, I think I’ll stick with something that conjures more luce di sotto than the dank smell of a basement.

I’m voting, with Hitchens, for library.  

ARTHUR PLOTNIK, who served as editor of American Libraries and ALA Editions, is the author of eight books, including two Book-of-the-Month Club selections. His latest is the revised The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words (2012).



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