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Onomatopoeia: Definition & Usage Examples

Updated on January 16, 2024Grammar

How do you write a sound? We know that a ball against a racket makes a thwack, that a bird tweets, and that thunder goes boom, but where do these words come from? Here we’ll explore the meaning and use of onomatopoeia, or words that, when spoken, mimic sounds associated with the things they refer to.

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What is an onomatopoeia?

Onomatopoeia, pronounced ah-nuh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh, refers to the practice of naming something based on a phonetic (spoken) imitation of a sound associated with it. It can also refer to a single word of this kind: Hiss is an onomatopoeia. Buzz, chirp, and honk are all also examples of onomatopoeia.

As with so many other words in the English language, we have classical Greek to thank for onomatopoeia, which originates from the words onoma, meaning “name,” and poiein, meaning “to make.”

In a way, onomatopoeias are a human attempt to bypass the step of translating something into language altogether by just reproducing a sound in order to refer to the thing or action that makes it. One thing that makes these words fascinating is the way they fail to fully do that. For example, roosters make the same sound all over the world, but the onomatopoeias for that sound vary in different languages: In English, roosters are thought to say “cock-a-doodle-do.” In Spanish, it’s “quiquiriquí.” In Tagalog, it’s “tiktiláok.” In Hindi, it’s “ku-kudu-koo.”

This hybrid nature of onomatopoeias—the fact that they both imitate natural sounds and are shaped by human language—makes them potent ingredients to sprinkle into any kind of writing where you want the reader to be especially aware of the sounds and texture of language.

When are onomatopoeias used?

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that is used in both speech and writing. When you’re talking or writing about the physical world, the use of onomatopoeia can make your language more vividly expressive.

There are a few general categories of language that are particularly rich with onomatopoeias.

The animal kingdom

Onomatopoeias come in very handy when describing the animal kingdom. There are many that represent the sounds animals themselves make, such as meow or purr for a cat, bark or woof for a dog, quack for a duck, and oink for a pig. These words generally function as both nouns and verbs:

I could hear the dog’s bark from around the corner.

The dog barked so loudly that I could hear her from around the corner.

Another way that onomatopoeias become attached to animals is when an animal is named after the sound it makes. For example, many birds are named for their calls, including the cuckoo, the bobwhite, and the chickadee.

Human sounds and actions

There are many onomatopoeias for sounds humans make and/or for actions associated with certain sounds. Some examples include achoo, belch, gargle, growl, hiccup, murmur, and snore.

Nature and objects

The language we use when we’re talking about nature and inanimate objects supplies plenty of onomatopoeias. For example, the sounds associated with water give us splash, gurgle, drip, sprinkle, and more. Objects colliding with each other can clink, clatter, clang, or bang. The machines we use may beep, buzz, chug, click, ding, honk, hum, or zap.

3 types of onomatopoeia

Writers, linguists, and literary scholars have been suggesting ways of sorting onomatopoeias into categories for hundreds of years, and there’s still no definitive list of such categories that is widely agreed on. The following three groupings are one framework for thinking about the different ways onomatopoeia can function, from narrowest to broadest.

1 Onomatopoeias that name sounds

The most basic and direct kind of onomatopoeia is a word that simply names a sound by imitating it. Many of the examples of onomatopoeic words we’ve already seen belong in this category, along with other words like moan, whir, clack, rustle, and thud.

2 Onomatopoeias that name things connected with sounds

The bird names we discussed in the previous section—cuckoo, whip-poor-will, and chickadee—are examples of this second type of onomatopoeia, one degree removed from sound itself. These words don’t refer to a sound but to something that has a certain sound associated with it. Another example is the word whip—a whip is an object named for the sound it makes when in use; it is not itself a sound.

3 Onomatopoeias that mimic something else physical

With this third, loosest type of onomatopoeia, the way a word is vocalized relates physically to what it means, but the comparison is not to a sound. Two good examples are the words smooth and craggy. It doesn’t take much effort to say smooth, and the absence of hard consonants makes its sound resemble the soft, unbroken feel of a smooth surface. When you say craggy, on the other hand, with the hard c and g and its one accented and one unaccented syllable, the sound of it calls to mind the rough, sharp, uneven surface of the rocks and cliffs that it describes.

Onomatopoeia examples in literature

Onomatopoeia has long been used to great effect in literature, in a variety of ways. These include when a novelist invents a new word to evoke a sound, when a poet uses language not usually considered onomatopoeic to create a soundscape that enriches their subject, and when a comics writer uses a sound-effect word to create a vivid soundtrack for their text- and image-based universe. Here are some examples, with the onomatopoeias in bold:

“Florry whispers to her. Whispering lovewords murmur liplapping loudly, poppysmic plopslop.” —James Joyce, Ulysses

Besides the existing onomatopoeias whisper and murmur in the above example, Joyce also created several for his own purposes. “From this hospital bed / I can hear an engine / breathing—somewhere / in the night: / —Soft coal, soft coal, / soft coal!” —William Carlos Williams, “The Injury”

In the above lines, the poet’s repetition of the phrase soft coal mimics the sound of the train.

“Looks like the Schemer leaves nothing to chance! THWIP!” —The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 1, #84

Thwip is probably recognizable all over the globe at this point as the iconic sound of Spider-Man shooting his webs.

Onomatopoeia FAQs

What is onomatopoeia?

Onomatopoeia is the practice of naming something with a word that phonetically resembles its sound.

How is onomatopoeia used?

Onomatopoeia is often used in speech and writing to make language more vividly expressive.

What are some types of onomatopoeia?

Some onomatopoeias name sounds directly by copying them. Others resemble a sound associated with the thing they denote. Still others use the way they are pronounced to mimic not sound but something else physical, such as appearance, texture, or even a feeling.

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