Jun 20, 2003

Grand Piano and Other Phrases
They say the most beautiful phrase in English is ‘cellar door,’ but that’s a phrase I always feel neutral about. For me those words summon nothing. If such a pronouncement could be objective—aesthetics always seems an especially touchy subject for metaphysics—I hope it’s wrong. The thought that the most beautiful phrase in my language rings nothing for me, that it leaves me empty, would be a depressing one could I not just dismiss the transcendental part of the claim.

‘Blog’ is often complained of as an ugly word. Some, such as Language Hat, have looked at the form of the word and don’t see why this word is more ugly than your common household English words. I think that analysis is probably too deep though, missing the thought line of the complainer. ‘Blog’ is ugly because it conjures up both the ugliness of ‘blah’ and the ugliness of ‘bog.’ Thus, the word sounds not like the combination web + log but blah + bog and is ugly.

A phrase I’ve always warmed to is ‘grand piano.’ I thought of this again while reading a segment of Barrett Watten’s The Grand Piano in the preface to the new edition of my uncle’s Tjanting. Perhaps it’s the simple claim of ‘grand,’ kind of like the promotion in the title The Incredible Hulk or The Amazing Spidermanbut without the kitsch. That’s probably it. I like the phrase’s simple declaration of greatness, of authority.

The attraction I have to the phrase can’t have anything to do with grand pianos because I know little about pianos and actually dislike the looks of grand pianos. The things are unshapely—rounded body and raised lid demanding the instrement not fit in any room—and almost always cold. In a shiny black that looks like plastic, a grand piano is starkly less comfortable and inviting than an upright. I’m also fairly certain I liked the phrase before I’d ever seen a grand piano. I have a vauge memory of being a little disgusted with the object, in the way a poor little girl imagines diamonds are purple is disappointed in the lack of color in the real thing.

I like the phrase ‘grand piano’ for reasons of language. If there were no object—if ‘grand piano’ was not a referent to grand piano—I would be actually happier. I like the juxtapositions of sounds: the opening of ‘gr’ leading into the softened ‘an’ to harden again with a d, the soft and airy ‘pi’ and the repetition of ‘an’ leading our to the plain of the solid ‘o.’