Cacophony and Euphony—the Ebony and Ivory of Sound

“You can say anything you want, yessir, but it’s the words that sing, they soar and descend . . .I bow to them . . l love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down . . . . . I love words so much . . . . . The unexpected ones . . . . . The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly, they drop . . . . . Vowels I love . . . . . They glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish, they are foam, thread, metal, dew . . . . . I run after certain words. . . They are so beautiful that I want to fit them all into my poem . . . . . I catch them in mid-flight, as they buzz past, I trap them, clean them, peel them, I set myself in front of the dish, they have a crystalline texture to me, vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agates, like olives . . . . . And then I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them, I let them go . . . . . I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves . . . . . Everything exists in the word . . . . .” –Pablo Neruda

“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” – James A. Michener

As this is a blog/fanzine dedicated to the love of words, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that those quotes figure prominently in my work area. I used to post the Neruda quote in my classroom to encourage my students to develop a love of words like his, like mine.

I suspect you have a favorite word or two. Or maybe you’ve picked up a word or phrase that is now part of your speech pattern. Like, you know, and I mean are all too common, but I’m not sure people love those words as much as they rely on them. Seems like the last few trips we took, the wait staff used the word perfect for everything. “I’ll have a rum and Coke, please.” “Perfect.” Years ago, I worked with a guy who was the technology teacher and he used the word plethora—a lot. (ha ha) Ken has words he loves, but it isn’t easy to use defenestrate or sesquipedalian in your everyday conversation…unless you are Ken.

For about five years, I loved saying certain words. It’s hard to explain the satisfaction they gave me. Hearing them and making my tongue form them gave me a little jolt of some brain chemical. My students were very understanding and got a kick out of their teacher’s need to say Afghanistan and spaghetti—not necessarily in the same sentence. I guess that hard g sound just wanted to come out of my mouth. I don’t work those two words into examples or any sort of conversation now, but the sound and mouthfeel of words still thrill me.

For example, I like saying the word pergola. I want Ken to build us a simple one. I look forward to hanging rope lights and various macramé hangers from it. But what I really look forward to is saying: “Meet me in the pergola, won’t you?” or “Let’s entertain our guests in the pergola, shall we?” or “Let’s have our arugula (another hard g word I like saying) salad under the pergola, honey.” Again, the hard g makes itself heard.

The use of hard consonants is called cacophony. According to, “Cacophony is the use of a combination of words with loud, harsh sounds—in reality as well as literature.” The opposite is euphony which is defined on the same site as “…the use of sweet, melodious sounds for a delicious, beautiful experience of sound in poetry and prose alike.” Just reading those definitions, makes me wonder why I like the cacophonic words more than the euphonic ones. I am a no conflict kind of person, yet, it is the hard g I go to time and again. (Notice g in go and again.)

When it comes to using sound in prose and poetry, there are many effects you can achieve simply by selecting soft sounds versus hard ones. If you want your line to slide into the following one, you may want words that contain ls. If you want to show disgust or anger or abruptness, go for the ts, ds, ks, and the hard gs. Those letters work if you want to move the reader through the lines quickly, too. The softer sounding letters slow us down. (Did you catch my use of alliteration there? I love it as well.) Perhaps you want your reader to linger on your lines, lavishing in their lushness? I think you get my drift here. The intentional use of soft and hard letters makes a poem more complex without seeming like it is. When you read it, you get the emotion, you get the additional meaning, just from how it sounds.

From the site are these two examples:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

“The lovely lilies shade me as I stroll through the soft and dewy flower beds.”

Can you tell which is cacophony and which is euphony? I bet you can.

Once the pergola is built and we’ve had it awhile, I may need to find a new special word and a new project. Hmmm…perhaps a frog pond.





2 thoughts on “Cacophony and Euphony—the Ebony and Ivory of Sound

  1. Great entry Karen! I’m interested to know if you pronounced pergola a different way, like I do, whether you’d still like it. I say perGOLa (gol like “hole”). I like it!

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