Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 114: Whizz-Bang!

This week, producer Brett Baldwin and I travelled to the Minnesota State Fair to talk about a literary device and a way of forming words called onomatopoeia.

Fowler's Modern English Usage says that onomatopoeia refers to the formation of names or words from sounds that resemble those associated with the object or action to be named, or that seem suggestive of its qualities.

Think of the word whisper; it's a word that sounds very much like the action it describes.

Gordon Jarvie, in the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, describes onomatopoeia as a kind of sound symbolism. He says words are onomatopoeic if the sound of the word suggests its sense, adding that onomatopoeic words are also called mimic words.

Jarvie writes that sometimes onomatopoeic words imitate an animal's sound. Listen to the complete episode to hear kids' impressions of animal sounds, recorded at the animal barns at the Minnesota State Fair. Those animal sounds (like baa and moo) are simple examples of onomatopoeic words; they mimic the sound they intend to convey in their meaning.

Gordon Jarvie provides many other examples of onomatopoeia: babble, buzz, crack, clatter, gurgle, hiss, rustle, slither and splash, to name just a few.

Jarvie also adds that many words that begin with an S-L sound seem to have unpleasant connotations. For example: slap, slime, slink, slither, slurp.

Compare that to onomatopoeic words that start with G-L, which Jarvie says are often associated with light: gleam, glow, glisten, glitter.

Jarvie also says that comic books are a type of literature that created a whole range of onomatopoeic words: Not surprisingly, onomatopoeia has been explored and employed extensively in poetry. As an example, here are excerpts from the 1906 poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes:

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard ...

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked ...

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;

Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear? ...

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!

Onomatopoeia is a colorful way of expressing oneself in the language; however, mimic words are not always the best means of expression. That's why it's advisable to develop one's vocabulary — particularly one's store of adjectives — for use in descriptive writing and formal speaking.

Music from this episode: "Saints" by the Breeders; "42 Days" by the Dodge Brothers; "It's Oh So Quiet" by Björk

Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie.

Link: Minnesota State Fair

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