Word of the Day: Cacophony

Word of the Day

Paul Schleifer

According to www.dictionary.com, cacophony means “harsh discordance of sound; dissonance; a discordant and meaningless mixture of sounds.” The etymology, according to www.etymonline.com, is actually kind of fun: “1650s, ‘harsh or unpleasant sound,’ probably via French cacophonie (16c.), from a Latinized form of Greek kakophonia, from kakophonos ‘harsh sounding,’ from kakos ‘bad, evil’ (from PIE root *kakka- ‘to defecate’) + phone ‘voice, sound,’ from PIE root *bha- (2) ‘to speak, tell, say.’”

Why is it fun? Because when I hear the word cacophony, I always think “sounds that sound like kaka,” and that’s exactly what it does mean.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was born in 276 BC, in Cyrene, in what today is the country of Libya, though the city was founded by Greeks. He was educated first in Cyrene and later in Athens, and he became a man of great learning, someone who has had a real influence on our world even though most of us have never heard of him. Like most of the great scholars of that era, he was a polymath. He was also chosen to be, first, a librarian at Ptolemy III’s great library at Alexandria, and then the Chief Librarian there.

Some of Eratosthenes’s accomplishments include

  1. Determining with a fair amount of accuracy the circumference of the Earth, without ever leaving Egypt;
  2. Creating the discipline of geography and the first map of the world;
  3. Developing a calendar, based upon the ecliptic of the sun, of 365 days, with every fourth year containing 366 days;
  4. Developing the Sieve of Eratosthenes, an algorithm for finding prime numbers;
  5. Writing a number of significant works, which we mostly in just fragments, in part because of the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

One of his works was the Chronographies, in which he determined the dates of a variety of significant dates in world history. The first of these dates, mathematically and scientifically derived, was the Fall of Troy, which Eratosthenes determined to be June 11, 1184 BCE, about 3200 years ago on this very date.

If you don’t know about the Fall of Troy, the sacking and razing of the city by the Achaeans in response to Paris’s kidnapping (or seduction) of Helen, wife of Menelaus. The most famous retelling of the story of the Fall of Troy is Homer’s Iliad, but there are numerous other retellings in Greek mythology and drama. According to some scholars, while the historicity of the Trojan War is questionable, the story is what, in a sense, created the Greek nation, or established among the various Greek city states (like Athens, Corinth, Sparta, etc.) a sense of nationhood.

So we don’t know if the Trojan War ever actually happened. And there were all kinds of assertions about when it happened and when it ended, mostly based on literary/historical sources. But in my mind, Eratosthenes’s mathematical approach to determining the date of the Fall of Troy speaks clearly over the cacophony of other voices. Today is the anniversary of the Fall of Troy.


The image is “Aeneas’ Flight from Troy” (Fuga di Enea da Troia e San Girolamo) by Federico Barocci, a painting from 1598 currently in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. In Homer’s Iliad, no Trojan survives the sack of Troy, but in Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas manages to escape with some of his family and friends, sails the Mediterranean Sea, breaks Dido’s heart, and then founds the city of Rome.