Buzz, Plop, Boom, Hiccup … Smush?
Today’s topic: words that sound like stuff.
In my previous post, I mentioned how words are just random noises that don’t mean anything until we associate meaning with them. Now I’m going to talk about words that aren’t random noises.
Onomato … wha?
Onomatopoeia, pronounced like on-uh-mot-uh-pee-ah. It’s the word teachers keep in their arsenal during spelling bees for the kids they don’t like. But also, it’s when a word is created in association with the sound it’s describing.
Think of buzz and sizzle and plink. They’re real words, but they started with people imitating a sound.
Do you remember your kindergarten lessons?
What does a duck say? How’s a car go? How about the wipers on the bus?
That’s onomatopoeia. All those animal noises, even though some seem a bit off the mark (bow wow and oink-oink? Really?), are imitative.
And there are tons of examples beyond quack, vroom, and swish swish swish. We use a lot of them daily without knowing it, though vroom seems sadly absent from most of my conversations. Most are pretty self-explanatory: smack, plop, bang, clink, tinkle. The list goes on.
Interesting side note – even though animal noises are onomatopoeic, they’re not the same in all languages. For example, in America roosters say, “cock-a-doodle-doo” but the Germans say, “kikerikie” for the same animal.
Are these really imitative?
What about ones that aren’t quite so obvious? Let’s talk about whisper.
Wait … isn’t that one stretching it?
Not really. Especially when you take a look at where the word came from originally. According to a few sources for the etymology, Merriam-Webster included, whisper is of imitative origin, from Old English hwisperian. Which is from Old High German hwispalōn, which grew out of the Old Norse hvīsla. And, no coincidence, it’s related to the word whistle.
And what about more common ones? Smush for instance. Does it really embody the sound of something being smushed? (Or smooshed, if you prefer – either spelling is acceptable according to one of my favorite websites: Dictionary.com. Though neither Merriam-Webster nor my Oxford dictionary list it as an official word … yet.) This one seems to be a relative new-comer to our vocabulary, and according to Dictionary.com, it’s probably from people smushing the words smash and mush together. Both those words are considered onomatopoeic, so … there you have it.
And my personal favorite?
Susurrus – a whispering, murmuring or rustling, as of leaves. Not only is it imitative, but it also gets my award for being a great $10 word.
And just like all those $10 words that can add specificity to your writing, a well placed onomatopoeic word will add color and a liveliness that’s hard to get without it.
So what about you? What are your favorite imitative words?