What is Onomatopoeia?

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Onomatopoeia (on-O-mat-O-P-ya) is a word that’s hard to spell but easy to understand. Derived from the Greek words for name and making, onomatopoeia refers to the literary device of making words that imitate sounds. It’s a way to emphasize the sounds and it’s a technique we use often. In fact, many of us may not know it, but we’re using onomatopoeia when we teach children the sounds that animals make.

Words like baa, meow, quack, oink, neigh and woof all attempt to mimic the sounds that we hear the animals make. Onomatopoeic words exist in many languages, with the words varying according to how those speakers perceive those sounds. For example, the same animal that says cockadoodledoo in English, says Cocorico in French and quiquiriqui in Spanish.

Other noise words include, crash, buzz, crunch, sizzle, hiss, splash, gush, boom, purr, squeak, clang, whirr, tinkle, click and slurp. There are many others; care to add a few to the list?

Here are some quotations from newspapers:

… D. Cha, who negotiated with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said its tough words were “a splash of cold water on all of those who thought this was going to be easier and different this time.” He predicted th … (www.nytimes.com)

… who has been in Bangkok, Delhi or Cairo will be familiar with the lawnmower whirr of the mighty tuk-tuk. Nimble enough to weave through traffic jams and narrow streets, the three-wheeled auto … (www.theguardian.com)

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19 thoughts on “What is Onomatopoeia?”

  1. Piss! (I’m so classy, that’s the first thing I thought of.)

    In Japan, cats say “nyaa” and dogs say “wan”.

  2. In Dutch, that animal doesn’t say cockadoodledoo or quiquiriqui, but ‘Kukelekuuuuu!’
    And in Dutch, we sneeze by saying ‘Hatsjie!’, a chicken says ‘toktoktok’.
    Here in the Dutch speeking part of Belgium, a chaffink sings ‘Suskewiet’, but, very strang, when you go 150 miles to the south, and you come in the French speeking part of the country, when you hear a chaffink, you really don’t hear that ‘suskewiet’part anymore… (Really, not only how the people describe the sound changes with the language, the song of the chaffink is slightly different in the two parts of this very small country.)

  3. My favourites are ‘bang’ and ha-ha. And all the ones used in the original Batman TV series when there was a fight: Pow!, Wam!, and many others, he-he. Japanese also uses onomatopoeia for almost everything, specially in manga (Japanese comics). When transliterated they usually don’t make sense for most western people. Same with Chinese. That shows a good part of the cultural differences between East and West. In many Western languages, these words can be used as a verb, or as part of a verb: ‘He crashed his car against a tree’, ‘She purred with delight’, ‘He always slurps his soup’, ‘Please click here’.

  4. (For some reason this email did not land in my inbox until 9:11 this morning—Sat. March15.)

    I’d like to add screech, thump, and boing, which my spell checker dislikes. How do cartoonists spell check their work 🙂

    Also: the first time I heard a screech owl, it was on a clear, cold winter night when I was taking trash out to the bin. The bird was in a tree some 50 yards away from me, but the sound was so horrifying that I almost fell down. “Screech” doesn’t come close to describing it.

  5. This is fun, isn’t it?

    Thanks for the info about Japanese and Chinese, Alex. It’s yet another way in which they are very different from Western languages.

    @Deborah: I’ve never heard a screech owl, and I’m not sure I’d want to, now 😉

    @grumpyoneuk: Yes, that’s a great phrase.

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