Kapow! Spelling by sound

Humans couldn't be satisfied with spelling out only things they say. They also needed to spell out the sounds around them.

Giving a name to a sound is called "onomatopoeia." The word is difficult to spell but fun to say. Its Greek root means "coiner of names" and was first used in 1577.

What was going on in those days? Sir Francis Drake had left England to circle the world. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had started sketching the solar system. And some guy I'll call Floyd had heard a skylark singing and decided he heard a "warble."

"Warble" is an example of onomatopoeia -- the word sounds like the sound it describes.

(In full disclosure, I have no idea when Floyd did that, nor whether his name was, in fact, Floyd.)

Some onomatopoeic words are just imitative sounds:







Those all sound familiar, don't they? Let's hope you don't hear all of those every day, but I'm sure you hear them often.

Some onomatopoeic words are our spelling of sounds. I don't think bacon truly makes the sound "sizzle," but that's how we describe it. When the baseball hits the bat's sweet spot, do we really hear a "crack"? (Actually, I really do.)

Do you say "cough" when you cough? A kiss doesn't sound like the word "smack." Trains might say, "I think I can," but do they say "chug"? When you're turning newspaper pages, do you hear a "rustle"?

Most of us have learned to name such sounds that way merely because those around us do.

Many onomatopoeic words are the sounds of animals. We just need to know what they'd say if they were human. Bees buzz. Frogs croak.

Dogs either say "woof" or "arf." Koalas have a cranky bellow that belies their cuteness. And penguins squawk.

An interesting thing about onomatopoeia is that the chosen words are different in other languages. This suggests that we come to learn what is our culture's interpretation of a sound. In the Czech language, dogs say "haff-haff." In Korean they say "mung-mung."

In English, pigeons "coo." In Hungary, they say "burukk." In English, our clocks say, "tick tock." In Japan, clocks say "ka'chin ka'chin."

Comic books have their own collection of onomatopoeic words. I feel certain that comic book creators are required to take Strange Sounds and How to Spell Them 101.





Some writers like to use onomatopoeia to appeal to the reader's senses. Here are examples of its use from three diverse writers:

Jemimah: It's called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Truly Scrumptious: That's a curious name for a motorcar.

Jemimah: But that's the sound it makes. Listen.

It's saying chitty chitty, chitty chitty, chitty chitty, chitty chitty, chitty chitty, bang bang! chitty chitty ...

-- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,

1968, Ian Fleming

Bang! went the pistol,

Crash! went the window

Ouch! went the son of a gun.

Onomatopoeia, I don't want to see ya'

Speaking in a foreign tongue.

-- John Prine,


(Sweet Revenge, 1973)

"He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling."

-- For Whom the Bell Tolls,

1940, Ernest Hemingway

I like to imagine how words like this were created. Maybe a committee of earnest people stood around listening to water dripping.

"Did you hear the 'd' there?"

"That's a 'p.' I definitely heard a 'p.'

"Is everyone in agreement? Let's add this to our word chart!"

Or maybe one rabid revolutionary walked around with a jar of bees.

"Do you hear it? They start out with 'b.' It's majestic. Then they move subtly to the rolling 'z.' Listen!"


How do you know whether to use an "an" or an "a" before a noun? It's not based on the first letter of the next word. It's based on the first sound of the next word.

If the sound is a vowel sound, you use "an." If the sound is a consonant sound, you use "a."

a bicycle

a television

an anomaly

an eclectic fellow

So which do you use before an acronym such as FBI or SVU or PB&J? Because it's the "ef bee eye," it's "an FBI inquiry." Spelled out, it would be "a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry." Because it's a "pee bee and jay" sandwich, it's "a PB&J sandwich." And, spelled out, you also use "a," as in "a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Many people think it's "an historic occasion," but it's "a historic occasion." The "h" is a consonant sound.

Sources: Merriam-Webster, American Heritage Dictionary, Your Dictionary,, British Garden Birds, The Plain Dealer, Psychology Today, Dictionary of Iconic Expressions in Japanese, English Grammar Online 4U, About Education

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ActiveStyle on 07/30/2018