A Definition of the Literary Term, Cacophony

Skillful use of cacophony enhances the meaning of words through their sound

The Jabberwock
Vintage color lithograph of The Jabberwock by John Tenniel. duncan1890 / Getty Images

Similar to its counterpart in music, a cacophony in literature is a combination of words or phrases that sound harsh, jarring, and generally unpleasant. Pronounced Kuh-koff-uh-nee, the noun cacophony and its adjective form cacophonous, refer to the “musicality” of writing—how it sounds to the reader when spoken aloud.    

Coming from a Greek word literally meaning “bad sound,” cacophony as used in both prose and poetry typically produces its desired unharmonious effect through the repeated use of “explosive” consonants, like T, P, or K.

The word cacophony itself is cacophonous because of its repetition of the “K” sound. On the other hand, some words like “screeching,” “scratching,” or “oozing” are cacophonies simply because they are unpleasant to hear.

The opposite of cacophony is “euphony,” a mixture of words that sound pleasant or melodious to the reader.

A common misconception is that any tongue-twister, like “She sells seashells by the seashore” is an example of cacophony. While cacophonous phrases can be tricky to pronounce, not every tongue-twister is a cacophony. For example, “She sells seashells by the seashore” is actually an example of sibilance—the repeated use of soft consonants to produce hissing sounds—and is thus more euphony than cacophony.

Explosive Consonants: A Key to Cacophony

In many cases, “explosive” consonants are the key ingredient of cacophony. Explosive or “stop” consonants are those after which all sound abruptly stops, producing tiny verbal explosions or “pops” when spoken aloud.

The consonants B, D, K, P, T, and G are the consonants most commonly used in creating a cacophony. For example, imagine writing about a metal pot falling down a stairway. The pot would ping, ting, bong, dong, clang, and bang before going whack against your head. Other explosive consonants or stop sounds include C, CH, Q, and X.

Individual words, sentences, paragraphs, or entire poems are considered cacophonous when they contain explosive consonants occurring in relatively close succession. For example, in his classic poem “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe uses the “G” sound in a cacophony when he writes, “What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.”Or in William Shakespeare’sMacbeth,” the three witches’ chant of “Double, double toil and trouble,” repeats the “D” and “T” sounds to create a cacophony.

However, this does not mean that every consonant must be explosive or that explosive sounds must come in rapid succession. Indeed, most cacophonies use other, non-explosive consonant sounds to add to the passage’s expression of uncomfortable discord.

In contrast, euphony—the opposite of cacophony—uses soft consonant sounds, like “floral” or “euphoria,” or “cellar door,” which linguists consider the most pleasing combination of two words in the English language.

Why Authors Use Cacophony

In both prose and poetry, authors use cacophony to help bring life to their writing by making the sound of their words reflect or even mimic the subject, mood, or setting they are writing about. For example, cacophony might be used in writing about:

  • The tolling of distant bells.
  • The noise of a busy city street or classroom full of unruly children.
  • The chaotic violence of a battleground.
  • Dark emotions like guilt, regret, or sorrow.
  • A world filled with fantasy and mysterious settings.

By using cacophony and euphony—alone or together—authors can add tone and feeling to their writing in much the same way graphic artists use clashing and complementary colors to bring depth and emotion to their paintings. 

Cacophony in Lewis Carroll’s“Jabberwocky”

In his 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” Lewis Carroll created perhaps the best-known example of cacophony by the inclusion of the classic poem, “Jabberwocky.” The poem, which at once fascinated and confounded the novel’s main character Alice, uses cacophony in the form of invented, unmelodious words spiked with the explosive constants T, B, K to paint a picture of life in a fantastical world terrorized by a gang of menacing monsters.

(Listen to Benedict Cumberbatch read the poem in this video.)

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the momeraths outgrabe.

 

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!"

Carroll’s cacophony of confusion clearly worked on the novel’s main character Alice, who after reading the poem, exclaimed:

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”

Contrast Carroll's use of cacophony in “Jabberwocky” with the pleasurable euphony used by John Keats in his pastoral ode, “To Autumn.”

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run."

Cacophony in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

In his 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle,” Kurt Vonnegut creates the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, the natives of which speak a vaguely recognizable dialect of English. The San Lorenzan dialect is dominated by the explosive consonant sounds of TSVs, Ks, and hard Ps and Bs.  At one point, Vonnegut translates the well-known nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (albeit the version used in "Alice in Wonderland") into Lorenzan:

Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store,

(Twinkle, twinkle, little star,) 

Kojytsvantoor bat voo yore.

(How I wonder what you are,)           

Put-shinik on lo sheezobrath,

(Shining in the sky so bright,)

Kam oon teetron on lo nath,

(Like a tea tray in the night,)

Throughout the novel, Vonnegut uses cacophony comically to illustrate the absurdities of subjects like science, technology, religion, and the arms race by creating characters like Zinka and Bokonon and invented words like sinookas and wampeters, which are decidedly cacophonic due to their use of explosive consonants.

Cacophony in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver's Travels”

In his satirical novel on human nature “Gulliver's Travels,” Jonathan Swift uses cacophony to create a graphic mental image of the horrors of war.

"I could not forbear shaking my head, and smiling a little at his ignorance. And being no stranger to the art of war, I gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carbines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea fights, ships sunk with a thousand men…"

In similar passages, combining sharp sounds of the explosive consonants C and K add a nature of ruggedness and violence to words like “cannons” and “muskets, while P and B add to the discomfort felt while reading words like “pistols” and “bombardments.”

But Does Cacophony Always Work?  

While it can clearly add color and tone to writing, cacophony can sometimes do more harm than good.  If used for no good reason or too often, it can distract and even aggravate readers, making it hard for them to follow the work’s main plot or to understand its intent. Indeed, many authors strive to avoid injecting “accidental cacophony” into their works.

As the noted literary critic M. H. Abrams points out in his book, “A Glossary of Literary Terms,” a cacophony may be written, “inadvertent, through a lapse in the writer's attention or skill.” However, he stresses, “cacophony may also be deliberate and functional: for humor, or else for other purposes.”

Key Points

  • A cacophony in literature is a combination of words or phrases that sound harsh, jarring, and generally unpleasant.
  • The opposite of cacophony is “euphony,” a mixture of pleasant or melodious words.
  • The repeated use of “explosive” or “stop” consonants like B, D, K, P, T, and G are often used to create a cacophony.
  • Cacophony is used in both poetry and prose.
  • Writers use cacophony to help readers picture and feel the situations or conditions they are describing.

Sources

  • Euphony and Cacophony.”Encyclopedia Britannica. Online.
  • Bureman, Liz. “Euphony and Cacophony: A Writer’s Guide.” The Write Practice. Online.
  • Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). “The Sounds of the World's Languages.”
     Oxford: Blackwell. p. 102. ISBN 0-631-19814-8.
  • Abrams, M. H., “A Glossary of Literary Terms.”Wadsworth Publishing; 11 edition (January 1, 2014).  ISBN 978-1285465067
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Longley, Robert. "A Definition of the Literary Term, Cacophony." ThoughtCo, Apr. 17, 2018, thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-the-literary-term-cacophony-4163600. Longley, Robert. (2018, April 17). A Definition of the Literary Term, Cacophony. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-the-literary-term-cacophony-4163600 Longley, Robert. "A Definition of the Literary Term, Cacophony." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-the-literary-term-cacophony-4163600 (accessed April 22, 2018).