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Pronounced /ˌɒnəmætəˈpiːə/Help with IPA

This is not so unusual a term among those who write about words — though linguists today often prefer others, like echoism or imitation to get across the idea of forming a word from a sound.

The Greeks had a word for it, and we have borrowed it through Latin: onomatopoiia, the process of making words, which derives from onoma, a name, and poiein, to make. But we have extended the meaning beyond just making words to making words in a specific way — by echoing a sound that is linked to the thing we want to name.

English is full of such terms. Among them are repetitive childish imitations like boo-hoo, choo-choo and bow-wow, and exclamations such as argh and ouch. But there’s also a whole medley of nouns and verbs, some of them created in other languages and borrowed into English: bang, bash, bawl, beep, belch, blab, blare, bleat, blurt, bonk, bump, burble, buzz, clang, cheep, clank, clap, clatter, cuckoo ... life’s too short to go right through the alphabet, but you will get the idea.

It’s not only single words that can be onomatopoeic. The effect is common in poetry, as in “The moan of doves in immemorial elms / And murmuring of innumerable bees” and “I heard the ripple washing in the reeds / And the wild water lapping on the crag”, both of which are from poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Page created 5 May 2001

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 5 May 2001.