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/// Orthography versus cacography in our writing

Posted by Frank Taylor on April 29, 2013 (updated March 26, 2016)

The concurring opinion[1] by Justice Potter Stewart[2] in Jacobellis v. Ohio[3] provided one of the most memorable quotations from the Supreme Court of the United States.  Although Justice Stewart concluded that “criminal laws [against obscenity] are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography,” he confessed that he could not offer a more precise definition than “I know it when I see it.”[4]

Justice Stewart did not do much to clarify the legal definition of obscenity, but the noun “pornography”[5] calls attention to the many graphic aspects of law and legal writing.  The senses of the Greek[6] nominative graphe (γραφη) included “writing.”[7]

That legacy continues in a variety of English words that begin with “graph-” or end with “-graphy,” “-graph,” “-graphic,” “-graphical,” or “-grapher.”[8]  Those words include “orthography,” “calligraphy,” and “cacography”:

• The senses of the Greek word ορθος included “straight,” “upright,” “prosperous,” “true,” “exact,” “genuine,” and “righteous,”[9] the spirit of which we see in the definition of the English noun “orthography” as “[c]orrect or proper spelling; spelling according to accepted usage or convention”[10] or “a visible and readable representation of language.”[11]

• The Greek word καλλος signified “beauty,”[12] and in a compound word, καλλι- contributed “the additional idea of ‘beautiful’ to the simple word,”[13] so it is not surprising that a common definition of the English noun “calligraphy” is “[b]eautiful handwriting.”[14]

• The definition of the Greek word κακος consisted of undesirable elements such as “bad,” “worthless,” and “ugly,”[15] the spectre of which haunts the definition of the English noun “cacography” as “[i]ncorrect spelling,” “[b]ad handwriting,” or, more generally, “bad writing.”[16]

Beautiful handwriting is not a preoccupation when we use a word processor, but the distinction between orthography and cacography still provides an unequivocal incentive to proofread our writing.  We need to know incorrect spelling and bad writing when we see them, particularly in our own product.


[1] The website of the Federal Judicial Center explains the difference between a concurring opinion and other types of written opinions that courts produce:

opinion — a judge’s written explanation of a decision in a case or some aspect of a case.  An opinion of the court explains the decision of all or a majority of the judges.  A dissenting opinion is an opinion by one or more judges who disagree with the majority.  A concurring opinion is an opinion by one or more judges that agrees with the decision of the majority but offers further comment or a different reason for the decision.  A per curiam opinion is an opinion handed down by an appellate court but not signed by an individual judge.

“Definitions,” Federal Judicial Center, s.v. “opinion,” accessed March 22, 2016,

[2] We can locate a brief biography of Justice Potter Stewart through the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges on the website of the Federal Judicial Center.  “Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Stewart, Potter,” Federal Judicial Center, accessed March 22, 2016,

[3] Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

[4] The concurring opinion of Justice Stewart is available online through the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University Law School.  “Jacobellis v. Ohio: Stewart, J., Concurring Opinion,” Legal Information Institute, accessed March 22, 2016,

[5] One source, the Online Etymology Dictionary, includes a reference to Justice Stewart in its etymology of “pornography.”  [Douglas Harper], Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “pornography,” accessed April 23, 2013,

[6] The history of the Greek language encompasses “several varieties – the result not only of diachronic differentiation, but also of dialect diversity at each stage in its development”:

Ancient Greek (ca. 1400-300 BCE) includes Mycenaean (ca. 1400-1200 BCE), the Greek of the Homeric epics (ca. 800 BCE), and that of the Classical period (ca. 600-300 BCE). …

Hellenistic Greek (ca. 300 BCE to 300 CE) comprises the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament, of the non-literary papyri, and of works by authors of historical, scientific, grammatical, religious, philosophical, and satirical material. …

Middle Greek (ca. 300-1650 CE) comprises Byzantine Greek (ca. 300-1100) and Medieval Greek (ca. CE 1100-1650). …

Modern Greek (ca. 1650 to the present) has witnessed few significant changes from the form of the language in the Medieval period.

Brian D. Joseph, “Greek,” in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, ed. William J. Frawley, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2:105.

[7] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “graph” (diacritical marks omitted); [Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott], A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1996), s.v. “γρα̌φή” (diacritical marks omitted).

The senses of the related verb grapho (γραφω) or graphein (γραφειν) included “to write.” Michael Quinion, Ologies and Isms: A Dictionary of Word Beginnings and Endings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “-graphy”; [Liddell and Scott], A Lexicon, s.v. “ΓΡΑ΄ΦΩ” (diacritical marks omitted).  In linguistics, the English term “graph” refers to “[a] visual symbol representing a phoneme or cluster of phonemes or some other feature of speech; [especially] a letter or a combination of letters.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “graph.”

[8] Quinion, Ologies and Isms, s.v.v. “graph(o),” “-graphy.”

[9] [Liddell and Scott], A Lexicon, s.v. “ὈΡΘΟ΄Σ” (diacritical marks omitted).

[10] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “orthography.”

[11] The quoted words are from this description of the important functions that orthography serves:

Orthography is a visible and readable representation of language.  It is based on the laws and mechanisms underlying a specific script and also relates to a particular socio-historical framework.  Orthography gives linguistic messages a permanency that allows them to travel through time and space; and it also serves many other cultural and personal functions.

Jean-Pierre Jaffré, “Writing and Written Language: Orthography; Overview,” in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 4:386.

[12] [Liddell and Scott], A Lexicon, s.v. “κάλλος” (diacritical marks omitted).

[13] [Liddell and Scott], A Lexicon, s.v. “καλλι-” (italics changed to single quotation marks).

[14] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “calligraphy.”

[15] [Liddell and Scott], A Lexicon, s.v. “ΚΑ˘ΚΟΣ” (diacritical marks omitted).

[16] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “cacography.”


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