Definition of Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia refers to a word that phonetically mimics or resembles the sound of the thing it describes. For example, the words we use to describe the noises that animals make are all onomatopoetic, such as a dog’s “bark,” a cat’s “meow,” or a coo’s “moo.” Interestingly, the onomatopoetic words for animal sounds change quite a bit from one language to another, as the words must fit into the larger linguistic system. Therefore, while a pig says “oink” in English, it says “buu” in Japanese, “grunz” in German, “knor,” in Dutch, and so on.
The definition of onomatopoeia comes from a compound Greek word for “the sound/name I make.” In this way, an onomatopoetic word is the sound that the thing being described makes.
Common Examples of Onomatopoeia
As noted above, almost all animal noises are examples of onomatopoeia. There are hundreds of other onomatopoeia examples in the English language, however. Here are some categories of words, along with examples of each:
- Machine noises—honk, beep, vroom, clang, zap, boing
- Animal names—cuckoo, whip-poor-will, whooping crane, chickadee
- Impact sounds—boom, crash, whack, thump, bang
- Sounds of the voice—shush, giggle, growl, whine, murmur, blurt, whisper, hiss
- Nature sounds—splash, drip, spray, whoosh, buzz, rustle
There is a tradition in comic books of using onomatopoeias during fight scenes. These words, such as “wham,” “pow,” and “biff,” often accompany an image of a character knocking out another one to add a sense of sound effects. The comic book writer and artist Roy Crane popularized this tradition, inventing words such as “ker-splash” and “lickety-wop” to further diversify the range of sounds imitable in comic books.
Significance of Onomatopoeia in Literature
Onomatopoeia is often used in literature to create aural effects that mimic the visual thing being described. Authors sometimes use combinations of words to create an onomatopoetic effect not necessarily using words that are onomatopoetic in and of themselves. For example, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge uses the phrase “furrow followed free” to mimic the sound of the wake left behind a ship.
Examples of Onomatopoeia in Literature
The watch-dogs bark!
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
(The Tempest by William Shakespeare)
The character of Ariel in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest uses several examples of onomatopoeia in one short passage. The dogs “bark” and say “bow-wow” while the chanticleer cries “cock-a-diddle-dow.” Shakespeare is thus using the onomatopoeias of animal noises here.
Then will I lay the serving creature’s dagger on your pate. I will carry no crotchets. I’ll re you, I’ll fa you. Do you note me?
An you re us and fa us, you note us.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
This exchange from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is an interesting example of onomatopoeia. The character Peter says “I’ll re you, I’ll fa you. Do you note me?” The “re” and “fa” refer to the Solfege scales, which includes the notes do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, and do. Therefore his usage of two of those notes is onomatopoetic, but he always uses it as a pun by following up with “Do you note me?” In this question, “note” takes on the double entendre of meaning “do you understand me?” as well as referring to the musical notes. The musician to whom he is speaking picks up on the joke and uses it back at Peter.
I was just beginning to yawn with nerves thinking he was trying to make a fool of me when I knew his tattarrattat at the door.
(Ulysses by James Joyce)
Some authors love to create new words; both William Shakespeare and James Joyce were well-known for doing so. In this excerpt from his famously dense novel Ulysses, Joyce creates a nonce word “tattarrattat” for the sound of knocking at a door (a “nonce” word is a word that is created only for a special case). He combines other onomatopoetic words for knocking at a door, like “rap” and “tap” into one long word. After Joyce created this word, it is now listed as the longest palindrome in the English language.
Hear the loud alarum bells,
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune…
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows…
(“The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe)
Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem “The Bells” is one of the most onomatopoetic works of literature in history. He describes four different types of bells, including the “loud alarum bells” from these excerpts, as well as the “silver bells” on sledges, the “mellow golden bells” of weddings, and “iron bells.” In each stanza, Poe uses vastly different onomatopoetic words to mimic the sounds of the different bells. The silver bells, for example, “jingle” and “tinkle” in a “world of merriment.” The “jingle” and “tinkle” are light-sounding words, connoting joy and ease. The mellow wedding bells produce a “gush of euphony” that swells. Meanwhile the iron bells “toll” and, as Poe writes, “every sound that floats / From the rust within their throats / Is a groan.” These noises—the toll and groan—mimic the sound of anguish and solemnity. Finally, the loud alarum bells, as shown in this excerpt, produced such an effect on Poe that they warranted two stanzas. We see words like “shriek,” “clang,” “clash,” “roar,” “twanging,” and “clanging,” all words that Poe uses to make the turbulent and alarming sounds.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
(“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –” by Emily Dickinson)
Emily Dickinson describes the sounds she hears as she’s dying in her poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –.” The sound of the “buzz” is an onomatopoetic word. She also describes a “stillness in the room.” The use of onomatopoeia to begin her poem creates an auditory landscape, which she then fills with other imagery.
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 whack, whir, wheeze, whine
Sputter, splat, squirt, scrape
Clink, clank, clunk, clatter
Crash, bang, beep, buzz
Ring, rip, roar, retch
Twang, toot, tinkle, thud
Pop, plop, plunk, pow
Snort, snuck, sniff, smack
Screech, splash, squish, squeak
Jingle, rattle, squeal, boing
Honk, hoot, hack, belch.
(“Onomatopoeia” by Todd Rundgren)
This fun poem by Todd Rundgren uses many different examples of onomatopoeia to describe the ineffable feeling he gets in his heart when seeing a love interest. This is another good use of onomatopoeia—when there aren’t better words to get the reader to understand, sometimes creating a feeling through onomatopoeia can better get across the point.
Test Your Knowledge of Onomatopoeia
1. Which of the following statements is the correct onomatopoeia definition?
A. The different noises that animals make in different languages.
B. The creation of nonsense words to help people understand things.
C. A word that phonetically mimics or resembles the sound of the thing it describes.
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2. Which of the words in the following excerpt from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is an example of onomatopoeia?
He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.
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3. Which of the following excerpts from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” contains examples of onomatopoeia?
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.
They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
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