cacophony
n. a mix of discordant sounds; dissonance.

There’s nothing inherently new or exciting in the word cacophonous; in fact, many of you have probably heard it before. It has a flair of the exotic, but it’s showed up often enough in the mainstream to be fairly well known.

The reason I chose it was because I was trying to dissect it etymologically the other day and realized that while I knew the latter root, -phon (φωνή), which means voice (or often more generally is used to mean “sound”), I didn’t know the etymology of “caco-” which I could only assume to mean “bad.” The only other word I could think of with that same root was “cacodemon,” and I wasn’t even entirely sure that was really a word outside of Doom.

It turns out that the construction really is as simple as all that: the Greek kakos (κακός) means “bad, evil, or harmful.” The Greek kakos refers to inherent or characteristic evil; by contrast, the Greek word for that which causes ill effects is poneros (πονηρός). The word likely comes from the Indo-European root kakka-, which denoted ill, specifically defecation1

From this root, we get quite a few other, lesser-known words.

Cacoëthes refers to an urge or mania, the combination of the Greek kakos and ethos, which means “character;” literally, cacoëthes is “bad character.”

Cacodyl is a foul-smelling liquid compound: caco + od (smell) + yl (chemical suffix for radicals).

Cacogenics is a self-explanatory synonym for dysgenics (itself an antonym of eugenics.

One of my favorites is cacography, which is poor penmanship and/or spelling: kakos + graphein (writing or visual representation).

The balls-out coolest word, though, is a psychological one: cacodemonomania is a condition whereby a person believes he is possessed by an evil spirit. It comes from the English cacodemon (it is a word after all), from the Greek kakodaimon (κακοδαίμων). Whereas we have come to think of “demon” as being inherently bad, the word’s etymological origins, daimon, usually handed down to us through Latin as daemon, simply means “spirit,” without connotations of good or evil2. The split happened mostly because of Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and the evil spirits or beings described therein gave a permanent evil connotation to the word. As early as the 16th century, “demon” was evil, and “daemon” was reserved for the generally supernatural or incorporeal.

So, caco- reaches all the way back to the Indo-European kakka. It’s also related etymologically to the Greek kopros (κοπρος), which is, to be blunt, shit. While we may have words in English that use the root as “bad,” you’re far more likely to see it in words having to do with feces. The Dutch kakken3, the German kacken, Russian kakat’ (какать ), Icelandic kúka, and Czech kakat all mean “to defecate.”

I’ll stop here before I go off onto other tangents. Tune in next week when I’ll probably look at another common curse word that we all know and love.

  1. cf. Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, pg. 521[]
  2. The “daemons” of the computer world derive from these meaning, but it took several steps. The “daemon” of a Unix system, that is, an agent which works in the background, is derived from a though experiment known as “Maxwell’s Daemon” proposed by James Clerk Maxwell[]
  3. Cool sidebar: the Dutch pappe kak, or diarrhea, is the origin of “poppycock.”[]
§1991 · February 27, 2008 · Tags: , , , ·

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