Saturday, 27 February 2010


A referee for a paper in the journal that I edit used an unfamiliar word to describe the quality of a particularly problematic paper that we are dealing with: cacography. I was immediately intrigued by this word, appearing in this context, "The paper is not presented well with errors of typographies and cacographies...". A quick bit of internet searching reveals that this is a word with strong pedigree, deriving from the Greek kakos meaning bad and graphos meaning writing. The prefix is not connected with the Old English word cack which means excrement (a word that we used to use in its correct sense when we were kids, I was pleased to learn!) According to Michael Quinion, cacography seems to have emerged at the end of the 16th century in the sense of bad spelling, around the time that personal choices for spelling were becoming less acceptable with the development of standardized approaches due to the new technology of printing. In this sense, cacography was seen as the opposite of orthography which was the term for correct spelling. Subsequently, it came also to refer to bad handwriting, as an opposite of calligraphy, which refers to fine writing. My correspondent was using it to refer to poor sentence composition, as opposed to mere spelling mistakes. What a fine word.

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