Onomatopoeia (ON-uh-MAT-uh-PEE-uh) refers to words that imitate or evoke the sound they refer to. Put another way, these words look like they sound. The term stems from the Greek onoma, meaning “name,” and poiein, meaning “to make” (poet also stems from poiein).
The word onomatopoeia entered the English language in the 1500s, but humanity has a long tradition of using words and vocalizations to mimic sound. Eighteenth-century scholars like Jean-Jacques Rousseau even suggested that language originated from onomatopoeia. However, such hypotheses were widely discredited, with linguists and philologists giving them derisively onomatopoetic names like bow-wow theory and ding-dong theory.
Examples of Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia is used to convey several categories of sound. Some of the most common categories include:
- Animal sounds: hiss, caw, moo
- Mechanical sounds: click, clang, buzz
- Impact sounds: smack, boom, thump
- Natural sounds: splash, drip, rustle
- Vocal sounds: murmur, growl, whine
Here are examples of onomatopoeia in action:
- Bacon sizzled on the pan.
- She woke to the sound of chirping
- The tires screeched as he slammed on the brakes.
- “Ugh,” the boy groaned.
- Ding, dong, the doorbell rang.
- POW! The ball smacked him right in the face.
- The engine started with a vroom.
Onomatopoeia isn’t always so obvious as pow. The word blimp is actually onomatopoeia! These balloon-like airships were originally called dirigibles or zeppelins. In 1915, a British lieutenant struck an airship’s gasbag with his thumb, producing an unexpectedly odd sound. The lieutenant playfully mimicked the noise: “Blimp!” (Check out six more common yet subtle examples of onomatopoeia here.)
Types of Onomatopoeia
There are several types of onomatopoeia. It can be formed with real words, fabricated words, and letters.
Onomatopoeia Using Real Words
The most common type of onomatopoeia uses real words that mimic sounds, such as bark, hiss, and chime. Real words can evoke an onomatopoeic effect even when they don’t actually mimic the referenced sound. This is commonly achieved through repetition, alliteration, and consonance. Consider this example:
She sells sea shells by the sea shore.
The repetition of s and sh evokes the sound of waves breaking on the shore.
Or take this lyric from “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas:
And the bass keeps running, running, and running, running, and running, running
Running repeats 16 times in the full verse. Although the word doesn’t at all describe the sound of bass blasting through speakers, the repetition of the word, especially the unn sound, evokes the droning, buzzing bass notes.
Onomatopoeia Using Fabricated Words
Writers often flex their creative muscles to create entirely new words that suggest sound. Snikt is a great example from Marvel comics used to describe the sound of Wolverine extending his claws.
Onomatopoeia Using Letters
Onomatopoeia can also be formed with letters, such as zzzz, which mimics the sound of snoring. Other common examples include shh (which mimics both hissing and shushing), tsk (which expresses disapproval), and bzzt (which imitates buzzing).
The Functions of Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia can evoke a certain noise, like the buzzing of a bee; suggest movement, like folds of fabric rustling together; or enrich imagery, like using roar instead of yell. In each case, onomatopoeia makes writing livelier and more engaging.
In addition to other figures of speech, poets often use onomatopoeia to shape a poem’s sound or achieve a desired effect. Onomatopoeia is also common in children’s books, comics, and fiction, as it can add excitement and verisimilitude.
Consider these lines from Robert Browning’s poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The titular piper has just played three soft notes on his pipe:
There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
The onomatopoeia here collectively illustrates the noise that erupts on the street, as the children are enticed to follow the piper’s call. The addition of rhyme helps create a very childlike air. The sheer number of onomatopoetic expressions also establishes a stark contrast with the very next stanza: While a great sense of sound and movement accompanies the children, the onlooking adults stand frozen, “unable to move a step or cry.”
Onomatopoeia in Marketing and Advertising
Onomatopoeia is evocative and memorable. Thus, its use abounds in brand marketing and advertising. Onomatopoetic names express something about the brand, and they’re a powerful mnemonic—they stick in the consumer’s mind. Company names like ZipCar, Twitter, and Slurpee all use onomatopoeia. These pithy names are memorable, and they convey something about that brand’s product or personality. The cereal aisle is chock full of onomatopoetic brand names: Cap’n Crunch, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Honey Smacks, Corn Pops, Cracklin’ Oat Bran, Poppin’ Pebbles—the list goes on.
And then there are onomatopoetic slogans and taglines:
- “Snap! Crackle! Pop!” aptly describes the sound Rice Krispies make after being showered with milk.
- “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz” perfectly evokes the sound of Alka-Seltzer dropped into a glass of water.
- “Mmm Mmm Good” uses a vocal expression of pleasure to promote Campbell’s soup. It’s been the company’s slogan since 1935!
Onomatopoeia in Comics
Comics have long used onomatopoeia, especially in fight scenes. It gives this visual medium a sense of sound as well as movement, which helps readers fully envision the action on the panel. The tradition was popularized by writer-artist Roy Crane, who used expressions like pow and ker-plash to complement fast, action-packed storylines.
Other famous comic onomatopoetic effects include the aforementioned snikt as well as thwip, the sound made by Spider-Man’s web-shooters. Over in the DC Comics universe, there’s even a supervillain named Onomatopoeia who speaks in sounds like snap and blam.
Examples of Onomatopoeia in Literature
1. Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven”
The poem’s tired speaker has nearly fallen asleep when a gentle but insistent sound startles him into awareness:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
Poe uses onomatopoeia to great effect in this first stanza. Repeated use of tapping and rapping convey a short, sharp, recurring noise, and muttered describes the speaker’s low, quiet voice and reveals his weariness.
2. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Hagrid, the groundskeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, comes to collect Harry Potter before the start of the school year. He pounds on the door of the cabin housing Harry and his aunt, uncle, and cousin:
SMASH! The door was hit with such force that it swung clean off its hinges and with a deafening crash landed flat on the floor.
The sentence adequately describes the sound of a falling door even without onomatopoeia, but smash and crash make the scene more graphic and dynamic.
3. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
In “Speaking of Courage,” one of the many linked short stories in this classic metafictional novel, author Tim O’Brien describes a scene of war:
The sound was ragged and clotted up, but even so he knew the voice. A strange gargling noise. Rolling sideways, he crawled toward the screaming in the dark. The rain was hard and steady. Along the perimeter there were quick bursts of gunfire.
A voice gargles and gunfire bursts—these graphic descriptions evoke unpleasant and unexpected sounds that heighten the tension. The onomatopoeia works with other adjectives to paint an ominous, dire picture that supports the novel’s main themes about truth, fiction, and morality.
Further Resources on Onomatopoeia
To learn more about the use of onomatopoeia in comics, check out KA-BOOM! A Dictionary of Comic Book Words, Symbols, and Onomatopoeia.
English speakers know dogs say woof and cats say meow, but other countries have their own imitative expressions. Check out this video to discover what dogs and cats say around the world.
Looking for more onomatopoeia? This list compiles 101 examples of the figurative device in action.