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Onomatopoeia: Make Your Writing Ooze with Excitement

Updated on January 11, 2016
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

A sign in a shop window in Milan, Italy using onomatopoeia to show that the clocks are noiseless.
A sign in a shop window in Milan, Italy using onomatopoeia to show that the clocks are noiseless. | Source

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.

Snap! and the arm's come off. Onomatopoeia even affects zombies!
Snap! and the arm's come off. Onomatopoeia even affects zombies! | Source

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.

Wham, bam, and out of a jam! Onomatopoeia makes superheroes seem more exciting.
Wham, bam, and out of a jam! Onomatopoeia makes superheroes seem more exciting. | Source

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:

  1. Think about your 5 senses - touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing
  2. Study what you've written and look for onomatopoeic potential
  3. 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.

A robin displays the tasty worm it's plucked from nature's pantry
A robin displays the tasty worm it's plucked from nature's pantry | Source
Zap! How many onomatopoeics does it take to safely change a light bulb?
Zap! How many onomatopoeics does it take to safely change a light bulb? | Source

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
sputters,
utters
a splutter,
spatters a smattering of drops,
gashes wider;
slash
splatters
scatters
spurts
finally stops sputtering
and plash!
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.

On a crisp night the lingering sound of the bells can seem to last forever.
On a crisp night the lingering sound of the bells can seem to last forever. | Source

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;

After a downpour of freezing rain, trees sparkle, looking like they've been shrink-wrapped
After a downpour of freezing rain, trees sparkle, looking like they've been shrink-wrapped | Source

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
Drops;

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".

Why do bees buzz? It's onomatopoeia. They're probably saying they're happy to see ya!
Why do bees buzz? It's onomatopoeia. They're probably saying they're happy to see ya! | Source

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
  • Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Alka Setlzer's onomatopoeic formula for an upset stomach.
Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Alka Setlzer's onomatopoeic formula for an upset stomach. | Source

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,
October.

Golden sovereigns on your trees.
Golden guineas on your floor,
golden coins of leaves
that fall
for us to scuffle through
and rustle
and rattle
and hustle
and scrabble
and dabble
and paddle
as they fall
into an October carpet
which hides
our shoes.

Autumn leaves drop on the ground to make a golden carpet that crunches and crinkles underfoot with onomatopoeic satisfaction.
Autumn leaves drop on the ground to make a golden carpet that crunches and crinkles underfoot with onomatopoeic satisfaction. | Source

What Have You Learned about Onomatopoeia?

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 23 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Great piece. Loved the poll questions. Learned a lot. Voted up and shared.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 23 months ago from England

      Thanks lions44, for reading, voting, sharing and enjoying it!!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 23 months ago from Oklahoma

      Very informative.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 23 months ago from Orlando Florida

      What a beautiful and excellent exploration of onmotopoeia. I loved the poems especially The Rusty Spigot." Voted up +++++ and H+.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 23 months ago from England

      Thank you Larry and Catherine for reading and sharing! Gives me a real buzz :)

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 23 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I use this quite often, even if I can't pronounce it.

      BTW, what's a good onomatopoeia for onomatopoeia?

      Excellent and instructive Hub, John!

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 23 months ago from England

      Thanks WillStarr. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 23 months ago from California

      Interesting--I like your poetry piece here---although I tend to think that onomatopoeia can be overused in poetry and then the emotional content gets lost--just my 2 cents--

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 23 months ago from England

      I agree Audrey... like any other literary device :)

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 22 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub John. This is very useful to add visual effects to your writing with your senses. Voted up!

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 22 months ago from England

      Thanks Kristen!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 22 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure John!

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 16 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Fascinating stuff, John - reminds my Hillaire Belloc's 'Tarrantella - 'And the Ting, Tong, Tang, of the Guitar.' Great stuff.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 16 months ago from England

      Thanks FatBoyThin!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 12 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      This hub renewed my love of onomatopoeia. And this hub is the first time I've seen a photo of an English robin. For me, American robins are a common daily sight from early spring to late fall. I wonder what coined word would suggest the song that American robins sing from treetops.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 12 months ago from England

      Thanks for reading B. Leekley :)

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