From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Onomatopoeia (occasionally spelled onomatopœia) is a word or a grouping of words that imitates the sound it is describing, suggesting its source object, such as "click," "buzz," or animal noises such as "oink", "quack", or "meow". The word is a synthesis of the Greek words όνομα (onoma, = "name") and ποιέω (poieō, = "I make" or "I do") thus it essentially means "name creation".
Uses of onomatopoeia
In the case of a frog croaking, the spelling may vary because different frog species around the world make different sounds: Ancient Greek brekekekex koax koax (only in Aristophanes' comic play The Frogs) for probably marsh frogs; English ribbit for species of frog found in North America; English verb "croak" for the common frog.
Some other very common English-language examples include hiccup, zoom, bang, beep, moo, and splash. Machines and their sounds are also often described with onomatopoeia, as in honk or beep-beep for the horn of an automobile, and vroom or brum for the engine. When someone speaks of a mishap involving an audible arcing of electricity, the word "zap" is often used (and has subsequently been expanded and used to describe non-auditory effects generally connoting the same sort of localized but thorough interference or destruction similar to that produced in short-circuit sparking).
For animal sounds, words like quack (duck), moo (cow), bark or woof (dog), roar (lion), miaow or purr (cat) and baa (sheep) are typically used in English. Some of these words are used both as nouns and as verbs.
Some languages flexibly integrate onomatopoeic words into their structure. This may evolve into a new word, up to the point that it is no longer recognized as onomatopoeia. One example is English "bleat" for the sheep noise: in medieval times it was pronounced approximately as "blairt" (but without an R-component), or "blet" with the vowel drawled, which is much more accurate as onomatopoeia than the modern pronunciation.
An example of the opposite case is "cuckoo", which, due to continuous familiarity with the bird noise down the centuries, has kept approximately the same pronunciation as in Anglo-Saxon times and its vowels have not changed as they have in the word "furrow".
Sometimes things are named from the sounds they make. In English, for example, there is the universal fastener which is named for the onomatopoeic of the sound it makes: the zip (in the UK) or zipper (in the U.S.). Many birds are named after their calls, such as the Bobwhite quail, the Weero, the Morepork, the killdeer, chickadee, the cuckoo, the chiffchaff, the whooping crane and the whip-poor-will. In Tamil and Malayalam, the word for crow is kaakaa. This practice is especially common in certain languages such as Māori and, therefore, in names of animals borrowed from these languages.
Comics and advertising
Comic strips and comic books made extensive use of onomatopoeia. Popular culture historian Tim DeForest noted the impact of writer-artist Roy Crane (1901–1977), the creator of Captain Easy and Buz Sawyer:
- It was Crane who pioneered the use of onomatopoeic sound effects in comics, adding "bam," "pow" and "wham" to what had previously been an almost entirely visual vocabulary. Crane had fun with this, tossing in an occasional "ker-splash" or "lickety-wop" along with what would become the more standard effects. Words as well as images became vehicles for carrying along his increasingly fast-paced storylines.
Advertising uses onomatopoeia as a mnemonic, so consumers will remember their products, as in Alka-Seltzer's "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is!" jingle, recorded in two different versions (big band and rock) by Sammy Davis, Jr.
Rice Krispies (US and UK) and Rice Bubbles (AU) make a "snap, crackle, pop" when one pours on milk. During the 1930s, the illustrator Vernon Grant developed Snap, Crackle and Pop as gnome-like mascots for the Kellogg Company.
Sounds surface in road safety advertisements: "clunk click, every trip" (click the seatbelt on after clunking the car door closed; UK campaign) or "click, clack, front and back" (click, clack of connecting the seatbelts; AU campaign) or "click it or ticket" (click of the connecting seatbelt; US DOT campaign).
In many of the world's languages, onomatopoeia-like words are used to describe phenomena apart from the purely auditive. Japanese often utilizes such words to describe feelings or figurative expressions about objects or concepts. For instance, Japanese barabara is used to reflect an object's state of disarray or separation, and shiiin is the onomatopoetic form of absolute silence (used at the time an English speaker might expect to hear the sound of crickets chirping or a pin dropping in a silent room, or someone coughing). It is used in English as well with terms like bling, which describes the glinting of light on things like gold, chrome or precious stones. In Japanese, kirakira is used for glittery things.
Examples in media
- Whaam! (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein is an early example of pop art, featuring a reproduction of comic book art that depicts a fighter aircraft striking another with rockets with dazzling red and yellow explosions.
- Marvel Comics has trademarked two words of their own invention: thwip!, the sound of Spider-Man's web shooter, and snikt! the switchblade-sound of Wolverine's claws locking into place.
- In the 1960s TV series Batman, comic book style onomatopoeias such as wham!, pow!, "biff!", crunch and "zounds" appear onscreen during fight scenes. This is often the subject of parody, for example in the Simpsons episode "Radioactive Man" where the onomatopoeic words are replaced with snuh!, newt! and mint! which are references to other Simpsons episodes. There are also internet memes with a picture of Batman and the caption "I can punch you so hard words will appear in thin air." or a variation thereof.
- In book 4 of Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels, the name of the Houyhnhnms is an onomatopoeia for the whinny of a horse.
- Anguish Languish
- Animal sounds
- Cross-linguistic onomatopoeias
- Sound symbolism
- Vocal learning
- Sound mimesis in various cultures