The word onomatopoeia comes from the combination of two Greek words, one meaning “name” and the other meaning “I make,” so onomatopoeia literally means “the name (or sound) I make.” That is to say that the word means nothing more than the sound it makes. “Boing,” for example, means nothing more than what it sounds like. It is simply a sound effect, but one that is very useful in making writing more expressive and vivid.
Many onomatopoeic words can be verbs as well as nouns. “Slap” for instance, is not only the sound that is made by skin hitting skin, but also the action of hitting someone (usually on the face) with an open hand. “Rustle” is the sound of papers brushing together, but it also indicates the action of someone moving papers around and causing them to brush together, thus making this noise.
The concept of onomatopoeia words can be difficult to understand without examples. Examples give you the chance to see and sound out actual words. Below are five categories of onomatopoeic words with several examples of each. The list includes words with letter combinations that are commonly used to represent certain sounds.
Common Onomatopoeia Letter Combinations
Many times, you can tell what an onomatopoeic word is describing based on letter combinations contained within the word. These combinations usually come at the beginning, but a few also come at the end.
The following examples have been grouped according to how they are used.
1. Words Related to Water – These words often begin with sp- or dr-. Words that indicate a small amount of liquid often end in -le (sprinkle/drizzle).
An onomatopoeia poem by Australian poet Lee Emmett also illustrates many onomatopoeia related to water:
water plops into pond
warbling magpies in tree
trilling, melodic thrill
whoosh, passing breeze
flags flutter and flap
frog croaks, bird whistles
babbling bubbles from tap
2. Words Related to the Voice – Sounds that come from the back of the throat tend to start with a gr- sound whereas sounds that come out of the mouth through the lips, tongue and teeth begin with mu-.
3. Words Related to Collisions – Collisions can occur between any two or more objects. Sounds that begin with cl- usually indicate collisions between metal or glass objects, and words that end in -ng are sounds that resonate. Words that begin with th- usually describe dull sounds like soft but heavy things hitting wood or earth.
4. Words Related to Air – Because air doesn’t really make a sound unless it blows through something, these words describe the sounds of air blowing through things or of things rushing through the air. “Whisper” is on this list and not the voice list because we do not use our voices to whisper. We only use the air from our lungs and the position of our teeth, lips and tongues to form audible words.
5. Words Related to Animal Sounds – If you’ve spent significant amounts of time with people from other countries, you know that animals speak different languages too. Depending on where a chicken is from, for example, she might cluck-cluck, bok-bok, tok-tok, kot-kot or cotcotcodet. We’ll stick with English for now:
Miscellaneous Examples – Onomatopoeia is a fun linguistic tool used in literature, songs and advertisements. Now that you’ve seen examples of the individual words consider the following examples of onomatopoeia words in use:
- “Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks.”(“The Little Engine That Could”, Watty Piper)
- “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.” (slogan of Alka Seltzer, US)
Onomatopoeia every time I see ya
My senses tell me hubba
And I just can’t disagree.
I get a feeling in my heart that I can’t describe. . .
It’s sort of whack, whir, wheeze, whine
Sputter, splat, squirt, scrape
Clink, clank, clunk, clatter
Crash, bang, beep, buzz
Ring, rip, roar, retch
Twang, toot, tinkle, thud
Pop, plop, plunk, pow
Snort, snuck, sniff, smack
Screech, splash, squish, squeak
Jingle, rattle, squeal, boing
Honk, hoot, hack, belch.
(“Onomatopoeia”, song by Todd Rundgren)
What Is Onomatopoeia?
So, remember that onomatopoeic words try to capture a sound and, therefore, can bring writing alive inthe readers’ imagination. Reviewing examples of onomatopoeia words and their various sound categories is an excellent way to learn to recognize and understand the concept. Look for the sound or rhythm patterns that almost always exist, especially in poetry, and if you ever have a question about what an onomatopoeic word means, just ask yourself, ‘What does it sound like?’
This isn’t an exhaustive list of onomatopoeic words, but it’s a good start to understand this literary device. For even more examples, visit this onomatopoeia word list.