Robert Beard’s 100 Words

I was looking for some word origins when I came across a long list of English words  on a blog called Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The list was taken  from a book entitled  The 1oo most beautiful words in English, written by linguist Dr. Robert Beard, (one of the three founders of who has been working and playing with words for over four decades. For his book, he carefully collected the words he felt were the most beautiful in the English language, and wrote an essay about each one.

What struck me most was the number of words on his list that are foreign; words that have joined the English vocabulary without even bothering to anglicize themselves.

English is a wonderful language exactly because of its multicultural aspect. Browse any good dictionary that gives the etymology for each entry, and you will find that English contains words from dozens of other languages. When they keep their original spelling, we call them foreign words, while those words that have changed to blend into the English language are called loan words. In most other languages, foreign words are adapted to better fit in with their new language, for ease of pronounciation and spelling.

One of the many things that make English such a rich language is the fact that it is actually a mixture of many languages, taking its vocabulary from a huge number of other languages.

Robert Beard’s list illustrates this so well. For example, several of the words are actually French but have been brought into English unchanged, like “portmanteau” . “Chatoyant” is another, meaning to shimmer, to have irridescence, and coming from the way the eyes of a cat have those qualities. There are some Italian words such as “imbroglio”,  and “palimpsest” is a word which comes from Latin, but has Greek roots.

“Talisman” and “elixir” come to us from Arabic. “Serendipity” has a most interesting etymology, coming from Sanskrit via Arabic and Persian, and brought into English by a British author in the 18th century.

I enjoyed the list, and would like to add my personal favourite, “syzygy” which describes a configuration of three celestial bodies in a straight line, as during a solar eclipse for example. In Jungian theory, it means a union of opposites. Isn’t English fascinating?

Feel free to leave a comment and mention your own favourite words, be they foreign or English.

Note: This post has been updated to credit the author of The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English.

About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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11 Responses to Robert Beard’s 100 Words

  1. J.A. Pak says:

    I’m always impressed by how many clothing words come from India, like shawl. You’d never think shawl wasn’t originally “English”!

  2. Berit says:

    Interesting that he had both Diaphanous and Gossamer on the list. And Ebullience and Effervescent.
    Don’t think I have a lot of favorite words in English, but I like it because it’s more specific and abstract than Norwegian. I also like sanskrit, and for me it’s even more abstract.

    • chris says:

      Hi Berit, – thanks for dropping by and commenting. You’re right about that. I hadn’t noticed before. Perhaps it’s the meanings he likes, as much as the words.

      I love sanskrit. What a beautiful language, and the script, too.

      Any fave Norwegian words?

      • Berit says:

        “Sus” = The sound of the wind in the trees. I think the closest word in English would be whoosh, but it doesn’t feel the same.
        And “fjord”, of course. 🙂 And “Valhall” = Valhalla.

        It’s amazing how one can find traces of Sanskrit words in Greek and other European languages. Such an ancient language. “Jnana” = knowledge.

  3. yamabuki says:

    “C’est la vie”
    Works well for me
    I love the flow
    of sound and meaning
    Far better than
    “That’s Life”

    Whisper is wonderful
    Shadow sounds so good
    Shiver runs up my spine
    Eternity and Emptiness
    Weird and Goblin
    Wired and Beguiling
    Spiders and Demons
    Hidden and True
    Fears and Cries
    Cruel and Corrupt
    Anguish and Tears
    Space and Place
    Knife and Life
    Secret and Soul
    Joker and Fool
    death and hazardous
    Shared and Scared
    Mysterious and Curious
    Jackal and Corpse
    Perversion and Howl
    Sated and Consumed
    Straying and Betraying
    Darkness and Death
    On and on goes the list
    I love them all


    • chris says:

      Yamabuki, fantastic list. I love how some of your words are simple, but they are all packed with meaning. The pairings add another layer of meaning too. Words are versatile.

  4. Hi Chris,
    thank you for sharing Robert Beard’s list of 100 words. I learned some new words, for instance, ailurophile: a cat lover. I guess this could apply to me, LOL 😉 I have two kitties at home.
    I also like the word serendipity from the list. Sometimes I like words because they sound musical or harmonious and not necessarily for their etymology or meaning.

  5. brian says:

    thanks for the heads up on this…i am having a hard time coming up with ones off the top of my head…will give it though….to me it is all about how they feel in my mouth when spoken and what you can creatively do with them…

  6. Matt Martin says:

    I don’t really have *a* favourite word, but I particularly love those that for some reason are onomatopoeically suggestive of their meanings. Like, say, “eviscerate”. I think its the combination of sibilance and a long A that makes it seem so clinically brutal.

  7. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
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    someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find
    out where u got this from. thanks

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