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Definition and Examples of Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia (also known as, “nominatio,” “nominis,” “confictio,” “the new namer”; etymologically from the Greek, literally “name making”) is a tuneful technique which involves the use of a word, or phraseOpens in new window, the sound of which resembles or naturally imitates the sound of the thing signified.

In Onomatopoeia, the sounds are often produced by human beings, animals and objects. Sounds produced by human beings include but not limited to: “hey,” “clap,” “patter,” “giggle,” “ouch,” “mm,” “oh,” etc. Likewise, the sounds from animals include: “hum,” “tweet,” “cackle,” “bark,” “croak,” “squeak,” “quack,” etc. And those from objects include: “ding-dong,” “beep,” “tick-tock,” “vroom,” “click-click,” “crackle,” “rattle,” etc. Some object sounds can be associated with some action or movement.

Onomatopoetic sounds usually produce a resounding effect of the sense it signifies, thus making the signification efficiently expressive. For example: the name of the bird “cuckoo” reproduces the resounding effect of its song; the word “bang” reproduces resounding effect of an explosive sound or a gun-shot.

Classic Examples in the Literature

  1. “But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
    The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.”

    — (Pope)

  2. Ding-dong! Ding-dong! Merry, merry, go the bells, Ding-dong! Ding-dong!”

    — (H. K. White.)

  3. 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

    — (Emily Dickinson, I heard a Fly buzz)

  4. Hark, hark!
    The watch-dogs bark!
    Hark, hark! I hear
    The strain of strutting chanticleer
    Cry, ‘cock-a-diddle-dow!'”

    — (William Shakespeare, The Tempest)

  1. “Hear the loud alarum bells,
    Brazen 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 ...

    — (Edgar Allan Poe, The Bells)

Classification of Onomatopoetic Sounds.

Generic Sources and Onomatopoetic Sounds

Human EmotionResounding Effects
Sing“hum”, “lalala”, “tralala”
Pain“ouch”, “owie”
Choke“argh”, “ark”
Cry“bawl”, “boo hoo”
Cheer“yea”, “yeah”, “yahoo”, “yowie”
Talk“ahem”, “blah”, “blurt”, “boo”
Smell“sniff”, “snuffle”,
Laugh“hahaha”, “hehehe”, “giggle”, “chortle”
Animal SoundsResounding Effects
Bee“buzz”, “hum”
Bird“chirp”, “tweet”
Cat“mereow” “miaow”, “meow”, “miow”, “purr”
Chicken“duck”, “cackle”, “bawk”
Dog“woof”, “bark”
Dove “coo”
Mouse “squeak”
Electronic & Mechanical DevicesResounding Effects
Answering machine“beep”, “whir”, “sssstttt”
Analog clock“tic-toc, tic-toc”
Door bell“ding-dong”, “gong”, “clang”
Dial pad“hmmmmmmmmmm”
Auto engine“vroom”
Auto horn “honk”
Auto tires“screech”
Train horn “choo-choo”
Keyboard“ckick-click”, “tap-tap”, “clikkety-clikkety”
Earthly objectsResounding Effects
Avalanche“roar”, “shhhsh”, “swoosh”, “prattle”
Creek“babble”, “splash”, “lap”
Earthquake“bang”, “bash”, “bump”, “crack”, “rattle”, “whack”, “wallop”
Hurricane“growl”, “groan”, “blast”, “bellow”, “whiz”, “whoo”
Leaves“crackle”, “crunch”
Tree“rustle”, “swish”, “whisper”, “whoosh”, “thump”
Rain“drip”, “drop”, “torrent”, “trickle”
Snow“bubble”, “gurgle”, “mumble”, “ripple”, “splash”, “chum”
Wind“blast”, “crackle”, “hiss”, “rustle”, “swoosh”
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  • References
    • Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.31. p. 42 (“nomination”);
    • Quintilian 8.6. p. 31-33;
    • Susenbrotus (1540) p. 10-11 (“onomatopoeia,” “nominis confictio”);
    • Peacham (1577) C4r;
    • Puttenham (1589) p. 192 (“onomatopeia,” “the new namer”);

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