I love the word onomatopoeia (it is right up there with serendipity, petrichor, and murmuration, among a few others). I love saying all these words; and when I say onomatopoeia right, without tripping over my tongue, I feel cool!! What about you? What are your favorite words? And what words do you love saying out loud? Today’s post, as the title clearly says, is all about onomatopoeia, or as I think of it – Onomatopoeia: Wondrous Words Made of Sounds.
This fav word of mine makes many appearances in my blog, like in the recent Jabberwocky post, or when I talked about how words like gobbledygook and whippoorwill are onomatopoeic. Incidentally, gobbledygook is another word I love saying! Also, many birds and insects are named for their sounds – just like whippoorwill; cuckoo, for one, while others include katydid, cricket, and zyzzyx (an insect).
This post contains Amazon and other affiliate links, that at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. Please see the full disclosure for more information. I only recommend products I would (or have already) use myself.
Onomatopoeia: Wondrous Words Made of Sounds
Onomatopoeia, per the Merriam Webster definition of the word, states that it is a noun, and refers to: a) the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz, hiss); b) a word formed by onomatopoeia.
Origin: 1570s, from Late Latin onomatopoeia –> from Greek onomatopoiia lit “the making of a name or word” [onoma (genitive onomatos) “word, name” + a derivative of poiein “compose, make”]
“Sound gives life to our words just as well as the images they conjure up and the sound is there, whether or not we read them aloud.”
― A.A. Patawaran, Write Here Write Now: Standing at Attention Before My Imaginary Style Dictator
Hows and Whats and Whens and Whys
The Whats of Onomatopoeia
- Comic books commonly use them, like bang, pow, zap, or thump. A few of these are words that are only used to describe sounds and nothing else; like kapow, or thwip (for Spiderman’s web!)
- While these words are often used with exclamations or as stand alone words, onomatopoeia is also often used seamlessly within everyday language; human sounds, like cough and hum, animal sounds like meow and woof, and other sounds like honk, sizzle, and even zip.
- The words can be real words (like bang), made-up words (like kapow), or just a string of letters used to represent sounds (like zzzzzz).
- And sometimes, they are not onomatopoeic at all, but just the right use of them (like repeated use of the word bells in Poe’s The Bells poem – later in the post).
Why Use Onomatopoeia?
It provides writers and poets ways to create a multi-sensory experience with the magic of words. Readers can view the images, hear the sounds, and more (depending on what the writers chose to portray) thus getting a more vivid reading experience. It helps provide mood, rhythm, and dramatic or realistic imagery to the reader. And it lends power and that feeling-of-being-there to the writing.
Onomatopoeia is a fun way to engage the reader’s attention and imagination. When readers see that word, they automatically sound it out (either in their mind or out loud too), and it makes the image or the scene they are reading all the more real.
Helps writers to show, not tell; and thus make their writing more efficient and effective, and clear and concise!
When to Use it?
The Why section easily gives you an idea of when to use this powerful literary device. But to list a few, when
- the scene or image you are writing involves a sound, any sound at all
- you need to bring your writing to life,
- or you want to make it more fun and lively, or more dramatic and powerful
While it is often used for younger audiences, adding it to writing for older audiences is perfectly OK too; as long as it is not overused or out of context in either case.
The writer/poet also needs to keep the tone and mood of writing in mind while using this device. For example, using words like plop, thwack, or bang will sound out of place in a business or technical publication (even if it is about something that makes such sounds); or for that matter, in some works of fiction too.
As with any other such tool, using it well can add greatly to the impact of your writing, while overuse or misuse can negate its use completely.
How to Use it?
You can use these words as nouns, and help add a touch of reality to the scene. Using these precise sound words instead of generic words like noise aids the reader in visualizing (and well, hearing) what they are reading.
- In the dead of night, the cat’s meow filled the silence.
- She shut the door with a bang as she stomped out of the room. (here, stomped is also onomatopoeia, but used as a verb)
- The tinkle of the bells never fails to lend an additional touch of cheer. (If we replace tinkle with the word sound, it does reduce the effect, right?)
We can use these as verbs, like in the following examples. You can see how it makes everything so much more better.
- The engine roared to life! Instead of saying: The engine turned on.
- He plopped himself down on the sofa. Instead of: He sat down tiredly.
And don’t forget the adjective.
- To repeat a word I used yesterday: The cacophonous classroom quieted at the sight of the principal. (I think this sounds cooler than saying loud)
Check out the further reading section for links to various lists of words you can use in your writing; and any which way you use these words, it will be sure to make writing come alive and aloud!!!
Onomatopoeia in Poetry
As you might have figured out, poets love using onomatopoeia. It gives them that perfect way to evoke vivid imagery and add to the tone and mood of their poem so very easily and beautifully.
The Bells by Edgar Allen Poe
In the first stanza, we see these lines
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
followed by these later in that same stanza
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
The joy from these words conveyed both through the onomatopoeic words as well as the repeated use of the word bells changes to something darker later (again with effective use of these sound-words and repetition) as you can see below:
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning
From capturing that perfect mood and actions of the rats (with growing intensity) in these lines
You heard as if an army muttered;
And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
To the lines below which automatically conjure up children, and more children in the lines below
There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering…
Browning is certainly master of using onomatopoeia effectively.
Carl Sandburg’s Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio
You can see how Sandburg takes readers right into the honky tonk bar with these lines..
It’s a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes.
The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts.
The banjo tickles and titters too awful.
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
Some more music for you in these wonderful lines from Hughes
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more…
Yubbazubbies by Jack Prelutsky
Yubbazubbies, you are yummy,
you are succulent and sweet,
you are splendidly delicious,
quite delectable to eat,
how I smack my lips with relish
when you bump against my knees,
then nuzzle up beside me,
chirping, ‘Eat us if you please!’…
And then there are so many more to explore…
James Joyce coined the word in the quote below (starting with babab…) in Finnegan’s Wake (surely the longest onomatopoeic word ever?)
“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoor-denenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all Christian minstrelsy.”
And in Ulysses, Joyce coined the onomatopoeic tattarrattat for a knock on the door; this word is listed as the longest palindromic word in The Oxford English Dictionary!
Here is a clip of the Batman TV series. See it for yourself to check how onomatopoeia is used
Then, there is Ylvis’ What Does the Fox Say?
And I truly love how onomatopoeia transcends cultures and languages. People all over the world use onomatopoeia; and sometimes, the same or similar words (since the sounds are essentially the same) end up across languages. See this for How to “Woof” in 16 Different Languages!!
In a way, onomatopoeia is like a smile! What do you think?
h/t, References, and Further Reading
- Wikipedia’s Onomatopoeia page
- Wikipedia’s List of Onomatopoeias – Includes onomatopoeia word lists organized by type
- Onomatopoeia Examples – 101 examples of words used in sentences
- And another 101 Examples of Onomatopoeia in Sentences
- An online dictionary of onomatopoeias at the WrittenSound (a huge list of words, in the hundreds!); the latest addition (as of this post) is whumpf
- Onomatopoeia List – A cool list of words here as well
- List of Rhyming Onomatopoetic Words
- LitCharts page on Onomatopoeia
- Poetry 101: What Is Onomatopoeia? (Masterclass)
- Onomatopoeia Poems for Children
- Pick any of those words from the lists above; and write a poem using at least five of them
- Select any sentence or poem with minimal (or no) onomatopoeia; and try to rewrite it using onomatopoeic words. Example, replace train with choo-choo!
- Read Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll; and underline the onomatopoeic words you find there. Or any other examples of poems from the links for poems above.
- Check out Kenn Nesbitt’s How to Write an Onomatopoeia Poem (or as he calls it, an onomatopoem!!)
The One Thing You’d Save
Title: The One Thing You’d Save
Author: Linda Sue Park
Illustrator: Robert Sae-heng
Length: 72 pages
Genre: Children’s Novels in Verse(8 – 12 years)
Publisher: Clarion Books (March 16th 2021 )
Source: NetGalley e-ARC
Description: If your house were on fire, what one thing would you save? Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park explores different answers to this provocative question in linked poems that capture the diverse voices of a middle school class. Illustrated with black-and-white art.
I first discovered Linda Sue Park last year, when I read Prairie Lotus; and I knew I will be reading more of her books. So when I saw this one on NetGalley, I simply had to check it out.
And I am so glad I did. For this one is such a sweet, sweet read; the one that tugs at heartstrings and wraps you up in a warm hug all at once; the one that makes you smile and teary-eyed at the same time; and the one that makes you think: what would I save? It is also one that makes me go one step further and write a poem about it (or attempt to), in Linda Sue Park’s style.
It starts off with Ms.Chang giving her class the coolest assignment possible; or in Park’s words, “… good homework, not useless stuff like worksheets.” And the students are soon sharing their one thing each one would save in case of a fire. Note that their family and pets are safe, and the thing they can take/save can be any size and weight.
As we turn the pages to discover each “one thing I’d save” both through internal thought processes of various students and what they share with the class, we discover so much more….
And I cannot forget about the illustrations in this book. Robert Sae-heng’s black and white sketches provide the perfect backdrop and accompaniment for Park’s emotional, heartfelt, and lyrical verse.
The author’s note at the end talks about the poetic form used in the book – an adaptation of the Korean form, the sijo.
This is a book that will work perfectly for all ages; a book that will make pause and ponder about the things that really matter.
Get It Here
Related Reads and Other ‘O’ Reads
- Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
- One Last Word by Nikki Grimes
- Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot is a delightfully f(el)ine read!! You can read it online here.
- Other Words for Home by Jasmine Varga (A book that I am currently reading)
And Now, the End of This Post
Dear reader, as always, and always, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions, as well as recommendations. Have you read the featured books or any similar reads? What are your favorite onomatopoeias?
The AtoZ Challenges
You can find all my A2Z Challenge Posts here.