Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

"Cacophony": A Word for the Digital World

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. Here Erin offers a "word story" on cacophony, which she finds to be "a very apt term for the digital world."

A cacophony is “a collection of loud, harsh sounds heard all at once.” It’s disharmony. Discord. Dissonance. Noise.

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that cacophony entered English in 1656, and Online Etymology Dictionary and The Oxford English Dictionary largely concur (it’s great when we can all get along, isn’t it?). It comes to us from the Greek kakóphōnos, meaning “ill-sounding,” and it might have been influenced by the French cacophonie.

Two of the first printed uses of cacophony, as recorded by The OED, are:

Cacophony, an ill, harsh, or unpleasing sound, (in words) a vitious utterance or pronunciation. —Glossographia (1656)

Alter rhymes, and grammar, and triplets, and cacophonies of all kinds. —Alexander Pope in a letter to Jonathan Swift (1733)

Glossographia was written by one Thomas Blount. Interestingly Blount’s descendent, Roy Blount Jr., has written a couple of his own glossaries, Alphabet Juice and Alphabetter Juice. In Alphabet Juice, he introduces the idea of sonicky:

The quality of a word whose sound doesn’t imitate sound, like boom or poof, but does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word: queasy or rickety or zest or sluggish or vim.

I’d vote cacophony a sonicky word. Those c sounds are hard on the ears and are emphasized by their proximity to each other. Loud, harsh sounds, indeed.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that today, we use cacophony as we always have, in relation to voices, language, music, and general background noise.

You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. —American Scholar (Spring 2010)

Through a small speaker emerges the symphonic cacophony I couldn’t hear when I was in the water: a rain-forest chatter of squeaks, clicks and trills. —Popular Mechanics (February 2011)

We may be using cacophony the way we always have, but we’re using it more often.

Maybe its popularity is growing because our mechanized world is so loud, or maybe it’s because of all the noise we’re making online. Either way, despite its age, cacophony strikes me as a very apt term for the digital world.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 7th 2012, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Amen, sister! Thank you! Well-written and informative! (and I always thought the word meant several people coughing at once producing a humorous sound ...)

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday February 7th 2012, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
A lovely word. It sounds so nasty.
Wednesday February 8th 2012, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Adam J. (Pittsburgh, PA)
Too funny.

I'm writing my debut novel The Final Sound. Part of my development process is to get monthly micro-reviewers for 25 to 75 pages of material. In December, one reviewer gave me the following feedback when I used 'cacophony' twice within the same chapter.

"Cacophony - great word but it seemed placed to(sic) close together. It's like using efficacious twice, great the first, the second time it sounds forced - unless it's a word that will tie-in to some subsequent prophecy/explanation, then I get it."

:)
Sunday February 12th 2012, 11:31 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
To Adam J.
The reviewer's comment is indeed cacophonous!

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