In my line of work, I find that having words to describe different sounds is incredibly important. How could I tell you how to fix a noisy dryer without explaining the kind of noise it’s making? That’s why I wanted to take a moment to talk about onomatopoeia, what it is, and what some of the most famous examples of the concept are.
Admittedly, most of the information in this article is going to be pretty whimsical. I mean, we’re talking about a pretty fun group of words here. Still, since I use many of them on a fairly regular basis when I’m writing about soundproofing, their importance is undeniable.
After all, there’s a world of difference between a machine that’s buzzing and one that’s making clanging noises. A soft buzzing sound may be workable — you could even stifle it with a few pointed soundproofing materials. However, clanging would signify that the internal parts of the machine are colliding in a way they shouldn’t be, which isn’t exactly ideal. With that in mind, let’s hop right to the matter at hand.
What Is Onomatopoeia?
At the risk of sounding like a high schooler writing an essay, let’s start by defining the word “onomatopoeia.” As you can probably tell, the word itself is of Greek origin. In fact, roughly translated, the word means “to make a name (or sound)” — which pretty much matches up to the word’s definition.
I already made my excuses for my adolescent approach to the subject, but I find that we need a good definition here. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, onomatopoeia is “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it.” Simply put, onomatopoeic words sound like the noises they’re meant to represent.
Even though the word “onomatopoeia” has only been used for the past five or six centuries or so, humans have been using these kinds of words for as long as they could speak. Many linguists have even argued for the bow-wow theory, which claims that human languages have developed as imitations of natural sounds.
If this theory could be proven, I don’t think many people would be surprised. After all, every language has its own examples of onomatopoeia. However, in the following section of this article, I’ll attempt to list some of the most popular and most useful examples in the English language.
Examples of Onomatopoeia
Now that we’re all on the same page as to what onomatopoeia is, let’s see some examples of the phenomenon. Most people group the types of onomatopoeic words based on their origin. So there are words that describe sounds that humans, animals, or objects make, but also words that describe water or air sounds. Since the first onomatopoeic words we learn are animal sounds — let’s start there.
The first association most people have with onomatopoeic words are animal sounds. Weirdly, we teach kids to produce these animal calls from an early age. So we might prompt them to meow when they see a cat and bark when they spot a dog. But those are hardly the only onomatopoeic words of animal origin — and they’re certainly not the only ones we use for cats and dogs.
In addition to meowing, cats also mew — which is a slightly different sound — purr, hiss, or even, on occasion, growl. We usually attach different meanings to most of these sounds. While we usually take purring to mean that a cat is having a good time, hissing is a different story altogether. So, knowing how to distinguish between these sounds can save you from getting a claw to the face.
Moreover, dogs produce all sorts of different sounds, most of which are expressed with onomatopoeic words. In addition to barking, dogs can also whine, woof, snarl, and howl. Most of the noises dogs produce can signify distress or aggression, which is why most dog owners take pains to make their dog’s environment soothing.
Other animals get their own onomatopoeic words as well. Birds chirp, quack, cluck, and tweet, crickets chirp, pigs oink, horses neigh, frogs croak, cows moo, and so forth. Some animal sounds also come in handy when describing appliances. For example, flies and mosquitoes can be pretty annoying, buzzing around your head — but the same can be said of a noisy refrigerator.
Of course, most languages have wildly different words for describing animal noises. If you want to know just how different onomatopoeic sounds are in different languages, there’s no better way to learn than by listening to foreign version of Old McDonald Had a Farm for 20 minutes straight.
Even though my first instinct was to join this group of onomatopoeic words to the previous section, I ended up conceding that some of the noises humans make are uniquely our own. On the one hand, we do share many sounds with animals. We can growl, grunt, and snort with the best of them.
However, we also make some sounds that are pretty unheard of in the animal kingdom. For example, we can hum, murmur, and whisper at one another. If we’re sad, we start bawling, sniffling, and hiccuping. When we’re happy, we might whistle and giggle. Some of us have lisps — which is an onomatopoeic word that’s cruelly difficult to pronounce for people with certain kinds of speech impediments.
The point is, there are many sounds that are unique to humans. So having innumerable onomatopoeic words that express those sounds only makes sense. Besides, these words are especially useful in narrative fiction. After all, they allow us to have a better grasp of the characters’ moods.
Onomatopoeic words that express the sound of something being hit are perhaps the most famous in the comic book genre. Putting words that represent the sound effects into comic book panels is a time-honored tradition. However, modern comic book enthusiasts will accept POW (or even KAPOW), WHAM, CRUNCH, much more readily than the old-timey ZOUNDS and BIFF.
In fact, these impact sounds are so familiar in the comic book genre that they even made it onto the original 60s Batman TV show with Adam West. Before Batman was the Dark Knight we now know and love, this campy show had onomatopoeic words appear on the screen during fight scenes — as you can see in this video.
Of course, there are other words that express collision sounds but that aren’t as ancient-sounding. If we’re staying on the subject of fight scenes, you can also use slap or smack — or even crunch. Swords clash, guns fire with a bang, bombs go off with a boom — or a mediocre pop. There’s no shortage of onomatopoeic words that signify things crashing into one another.
Now, when I’m writing about soundproofing, object sounds are the group of onomatopoeic words I use most frequently. Essentially, these are the words that describe the kinds of noises household appliances and other things around your home make. Since I spend my time trying to figure out how to lessen the amount of noise in my house, I tend to need these words on a fairly regular basis.
To begin with, I often use the word squeak, since it’s a fairly unpleasant noise to hear, which is why I do my best to prevent it. I’ve written about fixing squeaky shoes, sliding doors, and windshield wipers. I also have guides for preventing doors, floors, beds, and chairs from producing creaking noises — as wooden objects are wont to do.
In addition to those guides, I’ve posted countless recommendations for quiet products to replace excessively loud ones. For example, if you can’t stand the ticking sounds your wall clock is making — simply get a silent one. Alternately, if you find tapping or clicking noises annoying, you can look into getting a silent keyboard or mouse.
As I have mentioned, sometimes we even use words that are commonly associated with animals to describe the sounds objects make. Take, for example, the hum or the purr of an engine — those noises aren’t necessarily annoying. However, if you’d rather not be able to hear screeching tires, roaring engines, and honking horns while you’re driving — there are steps you can take to soundproof your car.
Admittedly, I haven’t always been very keen on water noises. Sure, there are some good ones, but the bad ones seem to outweigh those. Can you think of anything worse than hearing the repetitive sound of a dripping faucet? Granted, if we’re talking about coffee machines, listening to dripping noises doesn’t have to be torturous.
Some water sounds can even be downright pleasant, as evidenced by their inclusion on some noise machines. For example, people love hearing the gentle splashing of the ocean hitting the shore. Some sound machines also have river noises, which can sound like a gushing, gurgling stream of water. Likewise, the soft drizzle of rain can be just the sound you need to unwind after a long day.
Similarly to water noises, air sounds can be pretty comforting in the right setting. For example, white noise fans can cool your space while making a whirring noise that resembles white noise. That kind of consistent, droning sound can put even the most anxious person to sleep within half an hour.
Still, any sound can be annoying if it’s loud enough. On higher speed settings, even fans can go from gently whirring to furiously zooming or whooshing the air around. But the worst-case scenario when it comes to air sounds comes in the form of vacuum cleaners. However, you can easily avoid having to deal with that problem by sticking with quiet vacuums only.
You might also want to read: Are Libraries the World’s Last Quiet Safe Haven?
Final Thoughts on Onomatopoeia
Clearly, onomatopoeia has been around forever and will likely stay a large part of our language for centuries to come. So shouldn’t we make a greater effort to understand it?
There is something to be said about something that’s so universal, and yet so different across languages. However, I’d be happy to leave that sort of philosophizing to the linguists. Ultimately, I’m content to use these words for my own purposes — getting rid of extraneous noises.