What is Onomatopoeia?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Onomatopoeia is usually defined as the creation or use of words that sound like the items or actions they name or refer to. As such, it is a rhetorical device: a language technique or device used to create an effect in or for the reader. It differs from cacophony, the intentional use of harsh sound for effect, as well as from euphony, the use of harmonious sounds, also for effect, although onomatopoeia may, depending on the item or action being imitated, fit into either of those categories.

The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.
The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.

Although the term in this sense covers a wide range of sounds, many of the words it includes seem to fall into a few categories, with the most, by far, being associated with the sounds made by animals. Here are some onomatopoetic words, grouped by category:

Clap is an onomatopoeia, because the word makes a similar sound to the action.
Clap is an onomatopoeia, because the word makes a similar sound to the action.

Mechanical. Machine noises seem to make up a fair amount of the common words in this group. Examples include buzz, beep, whirr, click, clack, clunk, clatter, clink. Many of these words begin with a "cl" sound.

Fast Motion. Words that convey the sound of speed seem often to begin with the letter s or z. Boing, varoom/vroom, whoosh, swish, swoosh, zap, zing, zip, and zoom are examples.

Musical. Some words in this group are associated with specific music instruments — the twang of a banjo or guitar, for example, or oompah for a tuba, or plunk for a keyboard. Others imitate a metallic sound, and these often end in ng: ting, ding, ring, ping, clang, bong, brrrring, jingle, and jangle. Then there are some that clearly evoke wind instruments, like blare, honk, and toot; and another group that seem percussive, like rap, tap, boom, rattle, and plunk. A person making music without an instrument might hum or clap or snap.

Food Preparation and Eating. In cooking, food may crackle or sizzle and oil may splatter. When a person pours something to drink, it may go splash, kerplunk, or gush, but hopefully it won’t drip, and when we open a soft drink, it will probably fizz. When it’s time to eat, people are likely to nibble, munch, gobble, and crunch.

Fighting. The action words that show up in comic books during fighting scenes are onomatopoetic, and include terms like pow, bif, bam, whomp, thump, smash, zowie, bang, and wham are some of them.

Animals. The sounds that animals make are complicated even in English, but it’s important for people to be aware that — contrary to what they might expect — in different parts of the world, the words used for animal sounds are quite different. Sheep do not universally go baa, nor do ducks quack everywhere in the world. Here are some common English renderings:

cat mew/meow cow moo/low
horse neigh/whinny dog bark/woof/bow-wow
pig oink lion roar
bird tweet hen cluck
chick peep rooster cock-a-doodle-doo/crow

Onomatopoeia is also used to refer to imitative resonances of other kinds. In this meaning, using a little word like wee to mean small, or a long or big word like macroscopical to mean large, is an example of onomatopoetic usage. It can also involve shape, such as when a poem about a tree is written to appear in the shape of the tree.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

anon1001102

What about the sound of someone running and breathing hard? Huff Huff or does anyone have a better one?

anon930191

What if someone is hungry? What is the onomatopeia I could use for a stomach growling?

anon337804

The sound of a bass from a subwoofer?

anon322906

The sound of someone knocking on a door?

anon193125

@anon69024: tsk, tch, ku, feh, pff are my suggestions.

anon69024

What would be a good spelling for a scoffing sound -- the kind one makes when puffing out a short burst of air?

anon63190

Foghorn? I'd say bwaaaaarrrp or booooop or something.

anon30754

Why do they call it onomatopoeia? Is there another way of calling it?

anon12848

Is there another grammatical term for words that describe sounds, but are not necessarily the sound you would use, say, for that animal or noise?

anon11418

what about the type of onomatopoeia and the theory of translating onomatopoeia? would you please tell me about that? please help me to answer this question. thank you very much for your answer and attention.

anon10801

Hey, what would be the onomatopoeia for a foghorn, in your wise opinion? Thanks!

anon2300

What about a series of musical notes...

dum dum DUM

dum da dum dum

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