Favorite words as a window onto the aesthetic function of language

Karla K. McGregor, Timothy Arbisi-Kelm, Bogi Perelmutter, Jacob Oleson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article characterizes the aesthetic properties of English words. One thousand adult speakers of American English reported their favorite words and justified their selections. Each word was coded for phonological characteristics, valence, and frequency of occurrence and compared with words from a corpus of everyday English from Reader’s Digest. The participants’ stated reasons for their selections were categorized as utilitarian (meaning, use) or aesthetic (form). Compared to the word types in the Reader’s Digest corpus, the favorite words were longer and lower in frequency of occurrence. They were less likely to include a sonorant consonant but more likely to include a repeated consonant. Consonant clusters were sparser among the favorite words. The majority of people justified their favorite words on utilitarian grounds, suggesting some difficulty considering form apart from meaning. The best predictors of aesthetic justifications were lower valence, lower frequency, longer length, higher sonority, and a higher density of lax vowels. People value words for the work they do—the meanings they convey. Nevertheless, people can appreciate words as objects, and when they do, novelty and musicality are privileged. This study informs our understanding of the aesthetic function of language and situates that function into a broader consideration of aesthetic appreciation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)380-396
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican Speech
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2019


  • Aesthetics
  • Metalexical awareness
  • Phonesthesia
  • Semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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