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What Is Onomatopoeia?
Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it refers to. The combination of letter sounds in the word imitate the natural sounds of that object or action.
Many languages are rife with onomatopoeic words—every animal sound from “bow-wow” to “moo” to “ribbit” is a form of onomatopoeia, as is the “tick-tock” of a clock, the “ding-dong” of a doorbell, a beep, a zap, a hiccup, a hiss, and a cackle. Such words seem to have sound effects built in to them.
Onomatopoeia is a Latin word, but its etymology can be traced back to the Ancient Greek “onomatopoiia,” meaning “the making of a name or word.” Sometimes onomatopoeia is used interchangeably with the term “echoism.”
What Is Onomatopoeia in Poetry?
Onomatopoeia is also a literary device used for poetry and prose. This definition of onomatopoeia is a little broader than the everyday one—in addition to well-known onomatopoeic words, it encompasses strings of words that together produce an associated sound effect. Usually, this will arise because the writer has harnessed devices such as assonance, consonance, and alliteration.
Used this way, onomatopoeia is a form of figurative language, heightening imagery beyond the literal meaning of the word on the page. Sometimes, writers will go so far as to make up new words based on natural sounds, such as “tattarrattat,” James Joyce’s preferred word for a knock on the door in Ulysses.
3 Ways to Use Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia helps heighten language beyond the literal words on the page. Onomatopoeia’s sensory effect is used to create particularly vivid imagery—it is as if you are in the text itself, hearing what the speaker of the poem is hearing. It is also used in:
- Children’s literature. Onomatopoeia features particularly heavily in children’s books, but that doesn’t mean it is unsophisticated. Rather, it is used differently for different audiences.
- Comic books. Comic books feature a famous example of onomatopoeia: sound effects written in stylized speech bubbles. “Pow,” “bang,” and “kaboom” are common, but comics writers also sometimes coin neologisms (or new words) for specific characters and situations. “Thwip” is the word that accompanies Spider-Man shooting his web and “snikt” for when Wolverine’s claws emerge. Learn more about comic books with Neil Gaiman here.
- Advertising. Snap, Crackle, and Pop are mascots for the Rice Krispies brand of cereal, named for the sound milk makes when interacting with puffed rice. A classic slogan for Alka Seltzer imitates the sound of the tablet dissolving in water with the line “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.”
Examples of Onomatopoeia in Poetry
Edgar Allan Poe was a master of onomatopoeia. Here is an excerpt from 1845’s “The Raven”:
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
In this example, none of the individual words are singularly onomatopoeic; rather, it is Poe's collection and organization of sounds as a whole that creates onomatopoeia. The repetition of “-apping” words conjures the sound of knocking. Poe uses onomatopoeia similarly in his 1849 poem, “The Bells”:
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
The word “bells” is not onomatopoeic on its own, but the persistent repetition results in a sense of metal, clanging rhythmically. Poe repeats “bells” 62 times in this poem.
Another example is in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
Even more so than “rapping” and “tapping,” “furrow” and “followed free” have seemingly no relationship to the sounds of seafaring. But placed together, they create agreement between sound and subject, and sound a bit like the ripples blooming in the wake of a ship.
There are further fine onomatopoeia examples in “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes:
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
The final lines here show how simple, invented words to emulate sound effects can have a strong impact.
Learn more about reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.