100 Beautiful and Ugly Words

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One of the many fascinating features of our language is how often words with pleasant associations are also quite pleasing on the tongue and even to the eye, and how many words, by contrast, acoustically and visually corroborate their disagreeable nature — look no further than the heading for this post.

Enrich the poetry of your prose by applying words that provide precise connotation while also evoking emotional responses. (Note the proportion of beautiful words to ugly ones in the compilation below; it’s easier to conjure the former than the latter, though I omitted words associated with bodily functions, as well as onomatopoeic terms.)

Notice how often attractive words present themselves to define other beautiful ones, and note also how many of them are interrelated, and what kind of sensations, impressions, and emotions they have in common. Also, try enunciating beautiful words as if they were ugly, or vice versa. Are their sounds suggestive of their quality, or does their meaning wholly determine their effect on us?

Beautiful Words

Amorphous: indefinite, shapeless
Beguile: deceive
Caprice: impulse
Cascade: steep waterfall
Cashmere: fine, delicate wool
Chrysalis: protective covering
Cinnamon: an aromatic spice; its soft brown color
Coalesce: unite, or fuse
Crepuscular: dim, or twilit
Crystalline: clear, or sparkling
Desultory: half-hearted, meandering
Diaphanous: gauzy
Dulcet: sweet
Ebullient: enthusiastic
Effervescent: bubbly
Elision: omission
Enchanted: charmed
Encompass: surround
Enrapture: delighted
Ephemeral: fleeting
Epiphany: revelation
Epitome: embodiment of the ideal
Ethereal: celestial, unworldly, immaterial
Etiquette: proper conduct
Evanescent: fleeting
Evocative: suggestive
Exuberant: abundant, unrestrained, outsize
Felicity: happiness, pleasantness
Filament: thread, strand
Halcyon: care-free
Idyllic: contentedly pleasing
Incorporeal: without form
Incandescent: glowing, radiant, brilliant, zealous
Ineffable: indescribable, unspeakable
Inexorable: relentless
Insouciance: nonchalance
Iridescent: luster
Languid: slow, listless
Lassitude: fatigue
Lilt: cheerful or buoyant song or movement
Lithe: flexible, graceful
Lullaby: soothing song
Luminescence: dim chemical or organic light
Mellifluous: smooth, sweet
Mist: cloudy moisture, or similar literal or virtual obstacle
Murmur: soothing sound
Myriad: great number
Nebulous: indistinct
Opulent: ostentatious
Penumbra: shade, shroud, fringe
Plethora: abundance
Quiescent: peaceful
Quintessential: most purely representative or typical
Radiant: glowing
Redolent: aromatic, evocative
Resonant: echoing, evocative
Resplendent: shining
Rhapsodic: intensely emotional
Sapphire: rich, deep bluish purple
Scintilla: trace
Serendipitous: chance
Serene: peaceful
Somnolent: drowsy, sleep inducing
Sonorous: loud, impressive, imposing
Spherical: ball-like, globular
Sublime: exalted, transcendent
Succulent: juicy, tasty, rich
Suffuse: flushed, full
Susurration: whispering
Symphony: harmonious assemblage
Talisman: charm, magical device
Tessellated: checkered in pattern
Tranquility: peacefulness
Vestige: trace
Zenith: highest point

Ugly Words

Cacophony: confused noise
Cataclysm: flood, catastrophe, upheaval
Chafe: irritate, abrade
Coarse: common, crude, rough, harsh
Cynical: distrustful, self-interested
Decrepit: worn-out, run-down
Disgust: aversion, distaste
Grimace: expression of disgust or pain
Grotesque: distorted, bizarre
Harangue: rant
Hirsute: hairy
Hoarse: harsh, grating
Leech: parasite,
Maladroit: clumsy
Mediocre: ordinary, of low quality
Obstreperous: noisy, unruly
Rancid: offensive, smelly
Repugnant: distasteful
Repulsive: disgusting
Shriek: sharp, screeching sound
Shrill: high-pitched sound
Shun: avoid, ostracize
Slaughter: butcher, carnage
Unctuous: smug, ingratiating
Visceral: crude, anatomically graphic

What did I miss? Add to these lists in a comment below.

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206 thoughts on “100 Beautiful and Ugly Words”

  1. Personally I think “crepuscular” is a repulsive word. I think a lot of it is personal taste. I’ve known a few people who can’t abide the word “moist”.

  2. The “ugly words” seem to be able to carry a lot more emotion or it is easier to link an image to them e.g. connecting a picture to disgust, cynical or slaughter. Personally, I like the word crystalline, but also ocean and motion. Thanks for this list, mark.

  3. “Cascade” is more accurately defined as “a series of small waterfalls”. To me, the word has almost onomatopoetic qualities, the two syllables reminiscent of a two-stage waterfall…

  4. I have always thought ‘noisome’ a quite ugly word. As DW says, it is all very subjective.

    The word ‘gusset’ always makes me cringe, too.

  5. I have a special fondness for the word mediocre. I’m not sure why, strange as it may sound.

    Also, have you noticed foods (especially fruits and vegetables) have similar associations?

    Yum: peaches, apples, lettuce, melon, rice, pudding, kiwi, chocolate
    Yuck: brussel sprouts, spinach, cabbage, spam, hash

  6. Elysian
    1579, from Gk. Elysion pedion “Elysian field,” where heroes and the virtuous live after death, from a pre-Gk. word of unknown origin.
    I have always thought this was a beautiful-sounding word, meaning “paradise.” Evidently the ancient Greeks did too; Hades is not nearly so pleasant.

    And in reply to Becky, I have always thought the word “melancholy” sounded beautiful, even though the meaning is somewhat sad.

  7. These are great listings, Mark. I looked for one word in particular: pulchritude. I never use it; I had to look it up just to spell it correctly. It’s an ugly word, and yet it means beautiful. And if you’ve ever heard a screech owl, you know that the word screech barely describes the horror of the sound.

    But “opulent” is a favorite word. It’s how I describe my figure—lavish to the point of excess (instead of obese).

    I love the names of southern race courses: Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Talladega. It makes you sound southern just saying them. Also magnolia, hush puppies, and Amarillo.

  8. I thought I would add a few of favorites I noted were missing from the list. I was somewhat concerned to find that I have an indordinate fondness for so many ugly words. I am choosing to believe it results from your more thorough coverage of the beautiful.

    Abominable: causing digust or hatred
    Odious: arrousing or deserving hatred
    Heinous: shockingly evil or hateful
    Barbarous: harsh, merciless or cruel
    Noxious: morally corrupting
    Odoriferous: morally offensive

  9. I agree with DW on “crepuscular.”

    According to some experts (Tolkien the philologist in particular), “cellar door” is phonetically the most beautiful phrase in the English language.

    Great post!

  10. Beautiful Words

    rutilant: having a reddish glow
    beatific: having a blissful appearance

    Ugly Words
    amphigory: a nonsense verse or composition

    natter: to chat causally – not sure if beautiful or ugly?

  11. When wikileaks published those cables a few weeks ago, there was one in which (Italian Prime Minister) Sylvio Berlusconi was described as “feckless.” Not really an ugly word, but such a perfectly wonderful descriptive word, and you just don’t see it used enough. I wanted to thank the State Department employee who wrote that, not only for the laugh, but also for a job well done, just for the use of that word.

  12. Oh I quite like cacophony. And “charivari” which I believe has a similar meaning. And I agree that “crepuscular” is quite ugly.

    My favourite at the moment is “moue”, which always conjures up the image of a young french woman with a sullen, sexy look.

  13. I’ll go with recalcitrant (not compliant) for my fifty cent word. Obtuse (slow of wit) for my everyday word. Jojack

    A police officer asked me “Do you know why I stopped you?”
    I said “You know, I have the same problem. I rush into a room, and then realize I have no idea why I went in there.

  14. I want to add ululate–to howl or wail in grief (or joy); from the sound of it, I’d add it to beautiful words; by definition, it may not be. Rike

  15. I think you should include (in the beautiful list) tintinnabulation–the ringing of bells.
    I mean, how can you go wrong?

  16. Ugly word: “fash,” as in “Don’t fash yourself.” From he Scottish for “worry.” My grandmother used it often in the sense of, “Don’t get all worked up about things” or “Don’t beat yourself up over it” or “Don’t blame yourself.”

  17. I always look forward to DWT. This one was particularly enjoyable. I was surprised, however, that you didn’t have the word gossamer. I love this word.

    Gotta agree with Bish on pustule; a REAL nasty word!

    Thanks for something to think about every day.

  18. I love the word withersoever. Something to do with Don Quixote. I know it is a mouthful, but it evokes the past, something dreamy, wistful, and daily life seeming to pass more slowly than today’s pace.

  19. Please make more lists like this, please, I’ve been trying so hard to find lists like this to help expand my vocabulary.

    As for words to add, “everlong” is quickly becoming one of my favourite words, for a beautiful word. One word that I have always found ugly, though it’s meaning is not, is the word “glowed.” I just despise the sound of it, though it’s most likely because my instinct is to make the past-tense of similar-sounding words ending in -ow to -ew, so that instead of glowed it should be glew.. like blow/blew, know/knew..

    but please, oh please, make more lists like this!

  20. Luscious is another beautiful world.

    What about “nostalgic” as another beautiful word?

    And perhaps euphoria.

  21. I love this post and will keep it. It includes most of the words that seem the most beautiful to me. I can’t access the list right now, but I like: mellow, lovely, cherubim. Yes, I see how the meanings influenced my choices.

    I can hardly say the words, roach and cockroach. They bring back the extreme disgust I felt as a child when I turned on a light in a garage and a number of the large winged variety flew at me. Apart from the insects themselves, I can’t stand those two words. I call the large ones by the other name we use in Florida, palmetto bugs, and I call the smaller ones cucarachas. Somehow, in Spanish it doesn’t sound so bad. I’m actually embarrassed for anyone whose surname is Roach, though I’m sure it has nothing to do with the bugs. Incidentally, I’m an retired elementary teacher and love wildlife, including most of the smallest kind. I’ve picked up many different kinds of insects, and don’t kill them unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve loved spiders since before Charlotte’s Web was written.

  22. Tengku:

    Yes, and “deep” and “earthy.” A visceral feeling is a gut feeling, because visceral literally means “guts,” from viscera, a word for the internal organs. I listed only the ugly connotations.

  23. I have forgotten the name of the author who published several collections of English language oddities, puzzles, and the like, but he had two favorites which I remember from his own list of “most beautiful words”–zephyr (with which I quite concur) and hemorrhoid (with which I pointedly disagree). As I remember, the “o-r-r-h” orthography seemed to have been a favorite of his, for some reason; I also seem to remember him having said nice things about the word “gonorrhea.” Beauty, apparently, was indeed more in the eye of that particular beholder than in his other organs.

  24. Great words! How about ‘happenstance’?
    I used it in an essay once and got a bonus tick on top, nice to see the lecturer was a word lover too!

  25. Agreed with Jojack on recalcitrant! So many harsh sounds in the word makes it really hard on the ears.

    A beautiful word that I think should be added is ‘pendulum’, such lovely nasal ‘n’ and ‘m’ sounds that make it so pleasant to hear.

  26. I thought “iridescent” was an ADJECTIVE that meant ” shining” or “lustrous”? The abstract noun form of the word is “iridescence” which means “lustre” ….have I got it wrong?

    I haven’t heard “susurration” being used except in printed text. But have really seen excessive use of “plethora”….

  27. My family refers to a certain ugly condition as having the beautiful word. the condition is diarrhea

  28. I know these words aren’t meant to be ugly, but I detest the words ‘chuckle’ and ‘chortle’.
    They’re just disgusting words.

  29. ‘Ugliness’ does seem to be related to a word’s meaning. Voracious is ugly and so is its meaning. Gossamer sounds beautifully light like butterfly wings or fine lace.

    And, as The Economist magazine’s well-known rules for writers compels us to use the easy word rather than a little-known synonym, we are left without ‘crepuscular’ and should use ‘dim’, or ‘chance’ instead of ‘serendipitous’. Sad!

    We left out funny words from these excellent lists, those that make us laugh. I love some Yiddish expressions I grew up with because they sound and feel just right, and often mean exactly what we are trying to say. They are also short: klutz (clumsy person); fe (expression of disgust); kvetch (complain); or nu (so?) or no? (in English), or ne? (in Afrikaans). And how about meh (so what? which is hardly spoken at all except with a twitch of the shoulders)?

  30. I teach creative writing to high school seniors, and one of the first things I have them do is to keep a running list of favorite and least favorite words in the last pages of their journals. (Turn to the last page and flip the journal upside down so that you don’t have a sense of writing backwards through the pages.)

    I used to keep a list of only favorite words, but I quickly found that my students were interested in those I mentioned as my least favorites, including phlegm, crusty, urinal, impressive, and prestigious. I find that whatever description I read that employs those last two is sure to turn me away. Did you ever enjoy a conversation with someone who talks about her prestigious law firm or his impressive credentials? And bunion is a loathesome word, made even worse by earning them from running.

    As for favorites, many of mine have to do with affectionate memories and longings, to include Gallatin Valley, Nova Scotia, swamp, periwinkle (color, flower, snail), river, hydrangea, hymn, hosanna, Wabash, Edinburgh.

    Once in a while I ask my students to take a word from their list of favorites and start writing. Invariably I find that the associations with the word are so powerful that they need no further direction.

  31. i believe that the word rendezvous is quite beautifull. Also beautiful is Vanilla, bouquet, and twilight….

  32. I’ve always liked Crapulence (intoxication), mainly because so many people I have known use it to mean the first four letters.

    Makes me wonder if people use it that way the word’s definition may change over time, much like Aggravate/Irritatate.

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