I. What is Onomatopoeia?
Boom! Pow! Whoosh! Wham!
All of these words are onomatopoeias, or words that sound like what they describe.
Onomatopoeia (pronounced ˌ’AH-nuh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh’) refers to words whose pronunciations imitate the sounds they describe. A dog’s bark sounds like “woof,” so “woof” is an example of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia can be used to describe the gears of machines working, the horn of a car honking, animals croaking or barking, or any number of other sounds.
However, thereare some words like munch, sigh, or chew that are commonly mistaken for onomatopoeias, but they are not. Does the word ‘munch’ really sound like munching, at all? Or do we just think so because that’s what we call it? Does a sigh really sound like “sigh”? People disagree about these things. Of course, if it works, poetically, it doesn’t really matter. But, when you study literature, you should remember that words for sounds are not always onomatopoeia.
II. Examples of Onomatopoeia
Some of the most common instances of onomatopoeias are words for the sounds animals make:
Dogs bark, ruff, woof, arf, and howl. Cats meow, hiss, and purr. Frogs croak, chirp, and ribbit. Cows go moo. Horses neigh and whinny. Lions roar. The rooster goes cock-a-doodle-do!
The list of animal onomatopoeias goes on and on.
Another common example of onomatopoeias are the sounds made by water:
Rain pitter-patters, drip-drops, and rat-a-tats on the tin roof. Creeks babble and churn. Lakes ripple. Rivers rush. Oceans crash, roar, and thunder against the shore.
Examples of onomatopoeia surround us. To find other examples, simply ask, “What sound does that make?” Often, the answer will be an example of onomatopoeia.
III. The importance of using Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeias are a valuable way to describe sound, creating the actual sound in the reader’s mind.This creates a vivid reading experience. For example, “The wind howled, hissed, and whooshed” is more expressive than “The wind blew.” Onomatopoeia can provide a poem or prose passage with sound imagery and rhythm which express the mood of the work. Furthermore, it makes descriptions more powerful and gives a sense of reality when readers can hear sounds, while reading words.
IV. Examples of Onomatopoeia in Literature
Onomatopoeias provide readers with exciting, realistic, and evocative descriptions of sound in both poetry and prose.
For an example of onomatopoeia in poetry, read this excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”:
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;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,—
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells
Poe describes bells which clang, clash, roar, twang, jangle, wrangle, sink, and swell. Such strong descriptions of their ringing serve to evoke feelings of horror, danger, and anger in this dramatic and eerie passage.
For a more fun and cheerful example of onomatopoeias in literature, Read this Shel Silverstein’s poem “Noise Day”:
Let’s have one day for girls and boyses
When you can make the grandest noises.
Screech, scream, holler, and yell—
Buzz a buzzer, clang a bell,
Laugh until your lungs wear out,
Toot a whistle, kick, a can,
Bang a spoon against a pan,
Sing, yodel, bellow, hum,
Blow a horn, beat a drum,
Rattle a window, slam a door,
Scrape a rake across the floor,
Use a drill, drive a nail,
Turn the hose on the garbage pail,
Turn up the music all the way,
Try and bounce your bowling ball,
Ride a skateboard up the wall,
Chomp your food with a smack and a slurp,
One day a year do all of these,
The rest of the days—be quiet please.
This poem is essentially a collection of onomatopoeic words such as ‘buzz’ and ‘bang’ and also many evocative words for sounds which are not really onomatopoeia such as ‘scream’ and ‘burp.’ Silverstein celebrates the numerous loud and bombastic sounds children make before asking them to be quiet every other day of the year.
V. Examples of Onomatopoeia in Pop Culture
Onomatopoeias can be used in pop culture to create a mood or rhythm, especially in music where it fits in naturally.
For an example of onomatopoeias in pop culture, consider Ylvis’s song “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)”:
This comedic song uses onomatopoeia to draw attention to the fact that the fox, unlike many other animals, does not have a commonly known onomatopoeic sound.
Guesses for the fox’s sound range from wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow to ring-ding-ding-ding to bay-buh-day-bum-bay-dum. The idea of onomatopoeia is used as an excuse to introduce these fun musical nonsense vocals.
For a slightly subtler version of onomatopoeias used in song, listen to Charli XCX’s song “Boom Clap”:
The song “Boom Clap” is catchy, fun, and lighthearted. One reason why, is its use of onomatopoeias in the chorus:
The sound of my heart
Describing the heartbeat as boom and clap implies that the heart is full and energetic, like a pop song or happy party. Such a description conveys the happiness of the speaker, who has fallen in love.
VI. Related Terms: Onomatopoeia vs. Similar Devices
(Terms: assonance and alliteration)
Like onomatopoeia, assonance uses sound to create rhythm and mood. Unlike onomatopoeia, assonance is not a specific word that imitates sounds, but the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words. Here is an example of assonance versus onomatopoeia in the description of a river:
Sentence with Assonance:
The river wove hither and thither, glistening and misting over slivers of rocks.
The repetition of the ‘i” sound in river, hither, thither, glistening, misting, and slivers provides this sentence with rhythm and harmony, imitating the sound of rushing water to create sound imagery. Of course, the sound of a river is not literally like an “i”.
Sentence with Onomatopoeias:
The river slushed and rushed, bubbling and gurgling along the rocks.
Onomatopoeic words slushed, rushed, bubbling, and gurgling provide this sentence with a different rhyme, rhythm and sound imagery.
Like onomatopoeia, alliteration uses specific words and their sounds to create a rhythm and mood. Unlike onomatopoeia, alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. Here is an example of alliteration versus onomatopoeia in the description of a girl on a slide:
Sentence with Alliteration:
Sally slipped on the slide and slid off sloppily.
The repetition of the ‘s’ sound at the beginning of Sally, slipped, slide, slid, and sloppily provides this sentence with rhythm. But,there is no literal connection between the sounds of the words and actual sliding (does sliding even have a sound?).
Sentence with Onomatopoeias:
Sally slipped with a whoop and bumped down onto the slide, swooshing to the bottom.
The use of words like whoop, bumped, and swooshed provides the reader with sound imagery, invoking a vivid image of Sally sliding down the slide.
VII. In Closing
Onomatopoeias are words thst can be fun and realistic representations of the sounds they define. If a sound exists in the world, chances are there is an onomatopoeic word which clatters or clacks, swooshes or slaps, or bings or bangs in line with it.