I receive many requests that sound something like this: “Why don’t you do a column on…what do you call it? ... the kind of word that sounds like what it is… like ‘boom’ or ‘hiss’ or ‘tinkle.” Few of us dare try to spell it or say it, (it has eight vowels!) so it’s difficult to remember. (Dictionary entries usually call it “imitative.”) But most of us seem to sense a language arc connecting us to our primitive past when we get onto the subject of onomatopoeia.
This jolly holiday month seems like a good time to write on the subject… “Fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la!”
Onomatopoeia comes from two Greek words meaning “name” and “I make.” We all hear kids, before they can speak, imitating sounds like “bow-wow” and “choo-choo.” Parents often use these sound-words in teaching children, who may continue using them long after they learn dog and train. Indeed, what honest-with-himself adult doesn’t love to join with a group in singing “Old Mac Donald?”
It’s no wonder that an early leading theory of the origin of language, formulated by Charles Darwin, has our ancestral grunts imitating the sounds they heard in nature aided by gestures. When they gleefully reproduced those sounds with their lips, larynx, tongues, and breath, they began to experiment, perhaps commanding the cave-cat, “Meow…hie!” (“come here, cat”!) (It still doesn’t work!) And on and on it evolved over the millennia…the human mind embracing new concepts while searching to express itself. To reverse the philosopher’s adage, “The limits of our world are the limits of our language.”
All this much time later, we’re still imitating as we create new language to meet our word needs. All new words derive from older ones in one way or another. Marketing focus groups research sounds we associate with positive feelings. It is no coincidence that Xanax makes you feel “relaxed.” And when detectives needed a new word for “to follow closely behind a suspect,” they didn’t have to look farther than the “tail” of the dog to get an idea, and ‘voila!’ we had a new verb. People who are easily duped were tagged ‘gullible’ by a clever wordsmith connecting the “dupee” with the sneaky and deceptive characteristics of the seagull, for the gain of a new adjective.
But there is relatively little onomatopoeia among the slew of new words we see every year. The daily comics were, in the 1950’s, a great new source, among them a favorite, “boing…the sound of a coiled spring being released.” Lewis Carroll’s “galumph… (1871) to move in a clumsy, ponderous or noisy manner” is another.
Poets and songwriters delight us with their artful use of word sounds that, together, create a mood or feeling. These are sometimes referred to as onomatopoeic poems. Edgar Alan Poe was a master of the form. In his poem, “The Bells,” written within earshot of Fordham University’s church tower bells in the Bronx, he coined the word tintinnabulation…a ringing or tinkling sound. Using the word “bells” repeatedly and their various sounds, he celebrates the course of his love’s life from their joyful courtship on a sleigh ride (“tinkle, tinkle, tinkle”) to his mourning her death (“tolling, tolling, tolling.”)
In this holiday season, if you are awakened by “such a clatter that you spring from your bed to see what’s the matter” you may hear a familiar onomatopoeic-style stanza from “’Twas the Night before Christmas”: Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!/ On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!/ To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!/ Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
The lines, with their reindeer names, verbs, and punctuation, work together to create a sense of excitement, movement, and clatter. (And you can see how that upstart, Rudolph, sooo never fit in!)
Enjoy the myriad sounds of this holiday season. Notice the mood they create…(Ho-ho-ho!) and see if you can identify a fresh onomatopoeia among them. The current list from achoo to zoom should welcome a newcomer.