Mother... is the most beautiful word in the English language, according to a survey of 40,000 people worldwide

It may not be the most glamorous or fashionable word in the English language, but it represents an image of comfort and of home and hearth. In its diminutive form it is often the first and sometimes the last word we utter in our lives. And thousands of people around the world have voted it the most beautiful word in the English language. It is the word mother.

It may not be the most glamorous or fashionable word in the English language, but it represents an image of comfort and of home and hearth. In its diminutive form it is often the first and sometimes the last word we utter in our lives. And thousands of people around the world have voted it the most beautiful word in the English language. It is the word mother.

A British Council survey of 40,000 people in 102 non-English-speaking countries has put the word at the top of a 70-strong list. It is the only word on the list - which is dominated at the top by soft focus, romantic words, passion, smile, love, eternity - that refers to a relationship between people. And there is no room in the list for father. But the list, commissioned to mark the British Council's 70th anniversary, also revealed unusual choices in its lower reaches.

Lollipop, flip-flop, hen night and banana were chosen, along with twinkle, hiccup, hodgepodge, whoops and oi. Hen night came in at number 70. Aspirational words, such as freedom, liberty, peace, renaissance and destiny, are also high in the list.

Tony Thorne, director of the language centre at King's College, London, said different answers might have been achieved if the survey had been of people from English-speaking countries. "I'm surprised [mother] came top. I don't think, personally, that it is a particularly nice-sounding word. It is possibly the kind of word people think they are expected to give. It also indicative that many societies, particularly those dominated by the Catholic faith, are much more matriarchal than we are and it would not come top of a survey in this country. But it does represent a deep-seated thing. It is often, it is said, the word people shout on their death bed, when they sense the end is near."

What is not clear from the survey is whether people chose the words for their sound, for their meaning, or both. In other surveys asking for the favourite-sounding words, ones such as dappled and cellar door often top lists. Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, said he liked the sound and the meaning of mother. "It is fascinating. Whichever way you look at it, the mother figure and everything it stands for remains a strong presence in our lives. It certainly reflects the dominance of Catholic cultures and suggests God the Father doesn't represent anything quite as huggable. The absence of the word father is striking. And mother, or variations on it, may well be the first proper word we utter as babies."

Motion said he found many of the other high-ranking words to be "a bit sugary". He confessed to being a fan of the word mother. "It has got this emollient opening, leading us into the 'o' sound, followed by the soft 'th', ending in something slightly harder. It does suggest the sheltering arms of a mother. I use it a lot and have written many poems about my own mother." But his favourite word, after a little thought, was evening.

Favourite words mean different things to different people. The poet Keats said his favourite word was vale, and Mr Thorne said he veered among free, poignant and bozo. And sometime the sibilant sound is deceptive: James Joyce, a man who knew a thing or too about language, said his favourite word was cuspidor, a spittoon.

MATERNAL INSTINCTS

Kathy Lette, writer

Jokes, stories, cup-cakes and kisses are what I think of in relation to my mother. She taught me so many things. She taught me not to have an irony deficiency. Unlike most mothers, she didn't think that optimism was an eye disease. She taught me the importance of standing on my own two stilettos. She also taught me not to sweat over the small stuff. She was a great role model, particularly as I am now a mother.

Ann Widdecombe, politician

I have always been very close to my mother and we have been more like friends or sisters over the years. I think mother is a really touching word to have at the top and it is very suitable for Christmas. For most people, the word has a deeply significant meaning and it is certainly one of the most important words for me. Part of the beauty of a word is its meaning so, devoid of this, it simply cannot be beautiful.

Jilly Cooper, writer

My mother was just stunning, very beautiful, and had men around her all the time in the dances we went to in Yorkshire. I remember as a child during the war, I would watch her getting ready with hair piled up and getting into these wonderful Forties dresses, I was terribly proud of her. She taught me to read and took me to the railway tracks and she taught me about the wild flowers through stories.

THE TOP 15 WORDS

1 Mother

2 Passion

3 Smile

4 Love

5 Eternity

6 Fantastic

7 Destiny

8 Freedom

9 Liberty

10 Tranquillity

11 Peace

12 Blossom

13 Sunshine

14 Sweetheart

15 Gorgeous

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