The word onomatopoeia comes from the combination of two Greek words, onoma meaning "name" and poiein meaning "to make," so onomatopoeia literally means "to make a name (or sound)." That is to say that the word means nothing more than the sound it makes. The word boing, for example, is simply a sound effect, but one that is very useful in making writing or storytelling more expressive and vivid.
Many onomatopoeic words can be verbs as well as nouns. Slap, for instance, is not only the sound that is made by skin hitting skin but also the action of hitting someone (usually on the face) with an open hand. Rustle is the sound of something dry, like paper, brushing together, but it can also indicate the action of someone moving papers around and causing them to brush together, thus making this noise.
The concept of onomatopoeia can be difficult to understand without examples. Examples give you the chance to see and sound out actual words. Below are five categories of onomatopoeic words with several examples of each. The list includes words with letter combinations that are commonly used to represent certain sounds.
Many times, you can tell what an onomatopoeic word is describing based on letter combinations contained within the word. These combinations usually come at the beginning, but a few also come at the end.
The following examples have been grouped according to how they are used.
1. Water sounds - Words related to water or other liquids often begin with sp- or dr-. Words that indicate a small amount of liquid often end in -le (sprinkle/drizzle).
A poem by Australian poet Lee Emmett illustrates many onomatopoeia words related to water:
"water plops into pond
warbling magpies in tree
trilling, melodic thrill
whoosh, passing breeze
flags flutter and flap
frog croaks, bird whistles
babbling bubbles from tap"
2. Vocal sounds - Sounds that come from the back of the throat tend to start with a gr- sound, whereas sounds that come out of the mouth, through the lips, tongue and teeth, often begin with mu-.
3. Collision sounds - Collisions can occur between two or more objects. Sounds that begin with cl- usually indicate collisions between metal or glass objects, and words that end in -ng are sounds that resonate. Words that begin with th- usually describe dull sounds like soft but heavy things hitting wood or earth.
4. Air sounds - Air doesn't really make a sound unless it blows through something, so these words describe the sounds of air blowing through things or of things rushing through the air. Words related to air often start with wh-, include a w, or end with -sh. "Whisper" is on this list and not the voice list because we do not use our voices to whisper. We only use the air from our lungs and the position of our teeth, lips and tongues to form audible words.
5. Animal sounds - Words related to animal noises often have long vowel sounds, such as "oo" or "ay." If you've spent time in other countries, you may know that animals speak different languages too. Depending on where a chicken is from, for example, she might cluck-cluck, bok-bok, tok-tok, kot-kot or cotcotcodet. We'll stick with English here:
Onomatopoeia is a fun, linguistic tool used in literature, songs and advertisements. Now that you've seen examples of the individual words consider the following examples of onomatopoeia words in use:
"Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks."
- "The Little Engine That Could," Watty Piper
"Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is." (slogan of Alka Seltzer, US)
"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," song by Todd Rundgren
So, remember that onomatopoeic words try to capture a sound and, therefore, can bring language alive in the reader or listener's imagination. Reviewing examples of onomatopoeia words and their various sound categories is an excellent way to learn to recognize and understand the concept.
Look for the sound or rhythm patterns that almost always exist, especially in poetry, and if you ever have a question about what an onomatopoeic word means, just ask yourself, 'What does it sound like?'
This isn't an exhaustive list of onomatopoeic words, but it's a good start to understanding this literary device. For more examples, check out this onomatopoeia word list for kids. And find out more about other types of figurative language.