Onomatopoeia: Make Your Writing Ooze with Excitement
Onomatopoeia Turns Sounds into Words
Can you buzz like a bee? Whoosh through the door? Tinkle the ivories?
Does your microwave oven ping when it's finished cooking? Does your car zoom up the driveway?
Does your boss crack the whip to get you back to work? Do you gobble your food? Does your head rattle when you shake it?
In case you haven't guessed, these phrases all make use of the device known as onomatopoeia.
The Meaning of Onomatopoeia
The word comes from Latin and Greek, and literally means making up words. It's a literary device in which words imitate the sound of the noise or action they're describing such as bang, bash, splash, flick, jangle and fizz. Ironically, there's no onomatopoeic word for onomatopoeia. Argh!
It's Only Onomatopoeia but I Like it
Onomatopoeia is a literary device in which a word is used that imitates a sound associated with it, like a lion's roar, a snake's hiss or the gurgling of a stream. Like a duck's quack, a kitten's purr or a frog's ribbit.
It's a simple technique used essentially to make up words when no other existing words will do. It describes the sound something makes, and IS the sound itself. Like a smack on the lips. Or a choo-choo train. Or the drip, drip, drip from a leaking tap.
These words have all been around for a long time, but someone had to make them up. And that's one of the great things about onomatopoeia - it gives you the right to make up your own words.
For example, think about the sound you make when you're walking through thick mud with your rubber boots on. Squerploof, squerploof, squerploof.
Rather than saying you had to creep gingerly into the house because of the loose floorboards, describe how they groan, creak and squeak. How your clothes swish against the bannister. How the stillness gets shattered by the clink of your keys or the flicking of a light switch.
Describe the sounds that resonate in the environment around you, from the humming of the air conditioner to the ticking of the wall clock on the landing. The rustling of trouser legs rubbed against each other and even the fluttering of your heart as you try to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.
Onomatopoeia Livens Up Comics, Cartoons & TV Shows
Onomatopoeia helps us give names to things that don't have names already, like the gloop sound made by shampoo splodging out of a bottle.
If you've ever seen those early Batman shows on TV, you'll notice words like kapow, bam, thwack and ouch that appear on the screen whenever the Dynamic Duo is involved in a fight. These words help to suggest the sounds made when the Dynamic Duo mete out punishment to the bad guys.
Add Onomatopoeia to Anything You Write
Here's how to liven up your writing with onomatopoeic language:
- Think about your 5 senses - touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing
- Study what you've written and look for onomatopoeic potential
- Inject drama and interest where possible
For example, here's an excerpt from a short story:
- The springtime sun coaxed the blades of grass up out of the earth. On moist mornings robins and blackbirds dropped by to feast on worms venturing above the surface.
How might you eke out as much onomatopoeia from this as possible? Naturally you don't want to overdo it, but appealing to the senses can help bring your writing alive. Start by considering how these are affected:
- What might you see? - the shimmering sunlight; worms being plucked from the ground; dew drops on the grass
- What might you hear? - flapping wings; chirrups and twitters; neighbours' dogs barking
- What might you smell? - sniff the damp earth
- What might you touch? - the squelch of wet grass underfoot; the morning air tickling your face
- What might you taste? - moisture forcing you to gulp and swallow
Now, take some of the examples and rewrite the passage with the senses in mind.
- The shimmering springtime sun coaxed the blades of grass up out of the damp soil, soaked with drops of dew that squelched underfoot. Robins and blackbirds fluttered by to feast on adventurous worms, the metallic, earthy tang of morning forcing lookers-on to gulp and swallow.
Onomatopoeia in Everyday Language
Of course, onomatopoeia isn't reserved for use in the various forms of media. We make frequent reference to it in our everyday language as well, in words like hiccup, tick-tock, beep, meow, clap, cuckoo, etc. Have you ever:
- Been zapped by a live wire?
- Honked your horn at someone?
- Listened to the snap, crackle and pop of the cereal in your bowl of Rice Krispies?
These are all examples of onomatopoeia, a type of figurative language that makes sentences sparkle and phrases ping with expressiveness.
Riddled with Onomatopoeia: The Rusty Spigot by Eve Merriam
The rusty spigot
spatters a smattering of drops,
finally stops sputtering
gushes rushes splashes
clear water dashes.
Onomatopoeia Peppers Popular Poetry
You'll find examples of onomatopoeia in literature, particularly in poetry. Here's a unique example by Frances Thompson in his poem "The Hound of Heaven":
- My days have crackled and gone up in smoke.
Or this one in Robert Frost's poem "An Old Man's Winter Night":
- Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches.
Shakespeare naturally used the device on various occasions, notably in this example from "The Tempest":
- Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! Now I hear them - Ding, dong, bell.
And if you simply can't get enough of onomatopoeia, here are a few further examples taken from the poetry of various authors:
From "The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe
- How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From "Fossils" by Ogden Nash
- At midnight in the museum hall
The fossils gathered for a ball
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
From the poem "Digging" by Seamus Heaney
- The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
From "Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio" by Carl Sandburg
- 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.
Onomatopoeia Explained On-Screen
More Onomatopoeic Poetry: Winter Packaging by JohnMello
Freezing rain shrink-wraps lofty spruce trees,
Bends birches back,
Spreads shrubs sideways,
Makes driveways rinks,
The whitewashed wintry world weighted down,
waiting for deliverance;
Yesterday's snow glazed over and preserved,
Hiding in its crusty crunchy shell,
Rapt in transient meditation,
Unyielding, unmoving, unforgiving;
Frozen fingers chink, tinkle
Chilling tunes on ghostly piano keys
Blown against frosty neighbours that
Break off and shatter
On the pallid sounding board below;
This petrified forest, all a-flicker,
Sunlight filtered through a thousand plastic
Prisms, sparkling like Christmas trees,
Bark imprisoned by crystal water
A landscape such as Robert Frost might know;
All wrapped up with nowhere else to go.
Onomatopoeia in Song Lyrics
You'll find examples of onomatopoeia everywhere, from advertising slogans to the lyrics of songs. The following is an excerpt from Todd Lundgren's song entitled "Onomatopoeia" - so you can guess what it's about:
Onomatopoeia every time I see ya
My senses tell me hubba
And I just can't disagree
I get a feeling in my heart that I can't describe
It's sort of lub, dub, lub, dub
A sound in my head that I can't describe
It's sort of zoom, zip, hiccup, drip
Ding, dong, crunch, crack, bark, meow, whinnie, quack
Onomatopoeia is thought to have been used for the first time in the 16th century. In English it refers to the imitation of a sound, while in Greek it means "making or creating names".
Onomatopoeia Appears in Nursery Rhymes & Songs from Musicals
There are lots of examples of onomatopoeia in nursery rhymes and musicals. Just think of the verses in the nursery rhyme "Old MacDonald Had a Farm", for instance:
- With a quack, quack here and a quack, quack there...
- With a moo, moo here and a moo, moo there...
Onomatopoeia works like a memory device to help children learn new words and remember them. It serves a similar purpose in songs from musicals, which would have been particularly helpful in the past when songs were heard less often than perhaps they are today. Here are some examples of both:
- Baa, Baa Black Sheep
- Pop Goes the Weasel
- Cock-a-Doodle Doo
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
- The Wheels on the Bus
- Ding Dong! The Witch is dead
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Onomatopoeia in Advertising
Slogans and TV ads are both places where you'll find examples of onomatopoeia. Some of the more familiar ones include:
- The marble game KerPlunk
- The UK road safety campaign slogan promoting seatbelt wearing, Clunk Click, every trip
- The sound made by Alka Seltzer tablets dropped into water, Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz
In some cases, companies have taken things even further than this, creating their own onomatopoeic words and getting them trademarked. One example is Marvel Comics, who have trademarked the word "thwip" - the sound made when Spiderman shoots his web - and "snikt" - the sound made when Wolverine's claw blades pop into place.
Onomatopoeia is Always in Season
Finally, here's the text of the poem "October" by the Swedish children's book author and illustrator Elsa Beskow, taken from her collection "Around the Year".
Golden, you are,
Golden sovereigns on your trees.
Golden guineas on your floor,
golden coins of leaves
for us to scuffle through
as they fall
into an October carpet