Cacophony (Literary Term): Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Definition of Cacophony
  • 0:25 Literary Examples
  • 2:59 Using Cacophony
  • 3:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

In this lesson, we'll be covering the definition of cacophony, which is a literary device used to describe a blaring of sounds that don't match with each other. We'll also look at examples of cacophony in literature and afterwards you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Cacophony

Have you ever stopped to consider the feeling created by your words? Even if written, words generate an atmosphere of sounds for the readers. A cacophony is a blend of unharmonious sounds. The word originates from Greek, actually meaning 'bad sound.'

An example of a cacophony in real life would be like dishes crashing on the floor, or horns blaring and people yelling in a traffic accident.

Literary Examples

In literature, writers use cacophony as a purposeful technique to set up a harsh and jarring scene for the readers. Certain consonants and vowels, when written close together, will sound unpleasant or awkward, which can make reading the words uncomfortable. This can also make it difficult or awkward to read.

An easy example would be tongue twisters:

She sells seashells down by the seashore.

While the purpose of this is simply to be difficult to read or say, cacophony in literature is device used to add emotional depth to the moment. Because poems often times rely on musical elements, cacophony is very common in poetry.

Here's another example, taken from To Brooklyn Bridge by Hart Crane:

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan

This poem is meant to highlight the impressive destructiveness of modernism, in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge. Crane's words set up a scene that feels startling, a little frightening, and anything but soothing for the reader. His use of strong 's' sounds and the hard 'b's and 'p's create a dark, uneasy tone.

Another famous example can be found in Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky. You are probably familiar with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but did you know there was a sequel? Jabberwocky is a nonsensical poem found in the follow-up novel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The poem is considered one of the greatest nonsense poems of all time, due to its use of made-up words and playful construction of language.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tugley wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

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