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Pronounced /ˌɒnəmætəˈpiːə/Help with pronunciation

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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 May 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-ono1.htm
Last modified: 5 May 2001.