Tick-tock, wham, quack, and other fun sounds words

Published 4:53 pm Friday, February 24, 2023

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It’s been a while, so let’s talk about language this week. Specifically, one of my favorite words: onomatopoeia!

Doesn’t this six-syllable word have a fun sing-song quality to it when you say it out loud? (Spelling it correctly, on the other hand… not as fun! We can blame its Latin and Greek roots for that.)

If you’ve never heard the word before, the definition according to the Merriam-Webster is “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz, hiss).”

As the blog Grammarly describes it, onomatopoeias help bring your writing to life and make it more compelling to read. For example, compare these two sentences: “Diego lay awake, listening to the unending sound of the clock on the mantelpiece” and “Diego lay awake, listening to the relentless tick-tock of the clock on the mantelpiece.”

Both are fine, but using the onomatopoeia word “tick-tock” helps the reader imagine the scene in a more specific, realistic way. Sure, we can all fill in the blank when we read “sound of the clock,” but doesn’t “tick-tock” make us instantly hear that noise in our heads instead?

When I think of onomatopoeia, the first thing that comes to mind are actually comic books. You know those old superhero comics with the bright colors with pop-up sound effects like “bam!” and “pow!” and “kaboom!” All are examples of onomatopoeia which bring each action scene to life even though you’re just reading words and art on a piece of paper.

Some famous comic book onomatopoeia include the “snikt” sound effect whenever Wolverine of the X-men extends his claws, and the “thwip” to describe the sound that Spiderman’s web shooters make.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “onomatopoeia” was first coined in the 1500s (specifically around 1553, the same year English speakers started using words like “blandishment” and “portmanteau” and “sawmill.”) But the idea of creating words inspired by sounds has existed well-before we had a snazzy six-syllable word for it.

Actually, some people believe in the “bowwow theory” which hypothesizes that language itself originated by people trying to imitate natural sounds. Even though it’s not a proven theory, it’s safe to say that onomatopoeia probably played a big role in developing at least some parts of early languages.

After all, English has a lot of onomatopoeia words!

Wikipedia has a nice compiled list by category. A few examples include human vocal sounds (like achoo, cough, hiccup, slurp) and sounds made by devices and other items (beep, clink, splash, vroom, zap).

Sometimes things are named after the onomatopoeia sounds they produce. Have you ever thought about how the flip-flops you wear are named after the sound they make while you’re walking? What about the sound of a Bobwhite bird you hear in the evening? The name comes from a description of their birdcall. And if you play guitar, you probably know that the wah-wah pedal used for effects is basically just a description of the sound produced when you use it.

Other things named with onomatopoeia include the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (named after the car in the film which makes funny noises); Snap, Crackle, and Pop (the cereal mascots named after the sounds Rice Krispies make); and Wham! (the music group).

Merriam-Webster’s “Word Matters” podcast had an episode devoted to discussing onomatopoeia. To me, the most fascinating parts of the podcast were when they discussed onomatopoeia words that have taken on different meanings overtime. “Buzz,” for example, is a word to describe the noise a bee or other insects make. But because the English language is always growing and changing, “buzz” has gained other meanings as well, such as “speculative or excited talk or attention relating, especially to a new or forthcoming product or event.”

So you could say “there’s a lot of buzz about that upcoming movie based on that popular book series” and no one is thinking about bees doing the buzzing, right? People are the ones buzzing by talking about the movie.

Another example is “jingle” which originally was simply the high-pitched sound of metals hitting against each other. So that’s literally like the jingling of bells (most often heard at Christmas, of course) and the jingling of coins (most often heard in your pockets or purses, of course). But “jingle” also refers to a catchy short song or line used in advertising. I suppose it took on the meaning because advertising jingles are meant to catch our attention, just like hearing the sound of jingle bells or jingling coins would also make us pause for a moment to listen.

One aspect of onomatopoeia that many people are familiar with is animal sounds. We all have probably sang “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” at some point in our lives. Cows say moo, ducks say quack quack, cats say meow, and dogs go woof woof, right?

You’d think this would be universal to all languages, but it’s actually different! Well, technically, the animals are all making the same sounds. We just interpret them differently around the world.

A Spanish speaker might describe a cat noise as “miau.” They might say a baby bird goes “pio-pio” instead of “cheep cheep.”

In Japanese, the sound for dogs is “wan wan” and frogs make a “kero kero” noise. That’s a bit different than woof and ribbit, isn’t it?

Even the onomatopoeia for laughter can be different depending on your language as well, though most do use something similar to the “hahaha” we’re familiar with in English. My favorite actually is how Thai speakers will often type “55555” in online conversations to indicate laughter because the number five is pronounced “ha” in their language. So typing the number repeatedly is cute shorthand for saying “hahahahaha.”

Of course, I can’t wrap up this column without sharing a few of my favorite onomatopoeia from Japanese too. You’d say “kira kira” for something sparkly and glittery and “fuwa fuwa” for something soft and fluffy. “Doki doki” represents the sound of a heartbeat, and is used often when you want to describe someone who’s feeling excited or nervous about something.

And “shiiin” (pronounced like “sheen”) is the onomatopoeia to indicate awkward silence. My Japanese teacher used to say this out loud if she asked a question in class and then nobody answered!

I hope everyone learned something interesting from this week’s column, and didn’t feel like they needed to bang or thump their head against the nearest wall while reading.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.