A Whizz Bang Guide to Onomatopoeia – What Is It and When Should You Use It?

onomatopoeia onomatopoeias

Plop! Fizz! Hiss! Bang!

We’re sure you’ve heard an onomatopoeia or used an onomatopoeia lots of times without even realising it. We’re going to give you a guide to this uniquely descriptive type of English word. We’ll give you an example to help you understand onomatopoeia and let you know why it’s used and how you can use it yourself to improve your written and spoken English communication.

What is onomatopoeia?

An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds just like the thing it is describing. It’s also one of the trickiest words in the English language to spell! The word onomatopoeia comes from the combination of two Greek words, one meaning ‘name’ and the other meaning ‘I’ make. So, literally, onomatopoeia means the name (or sound) I make. For example, splat! or boing! Both these words are onomatopoeic and they mean nothing more than what they sound like.

Onomatopoeic words imitate sounds that you hear in everyday life and this is a far easier concept to understand when we look at some examples.

Animal sounds

In the English language, lots of words that describe the sounds that animals make are onomatopoeic:

Dogs woof, bark, arf and growl

Cats meow, purr, and hiss

Birds can cheep, crow, quack, tweet and warble

Cows moo

Pigs oink and snort

Horses neigh

Donkeys bray

Bees and wasps and flies all buzz

Water sounds

Lots of words in the English language that describe water are onomatopoeic. Perhaps you’ve already heard:

Gurgle

Splosh

Bloop

Drip

Squirt

You’ll notice a lot of other nature-related words in the English language that are onomatopoeic too, such as words to describe the wind – howling, blustery, and the rain – pitter-patter.

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How Batman can help…

But there are plenty of other words besides those relating to animals and nature that sound just like the sound they’re describing. If you watch Batman have a fight with any of his enemies and you’ll immediately understand what we mean!

So what are onomatopoeic words used for?

To create new words – some onomatopoeic words mean nothing beyond the sound that they are imitating. But some onomatopoeic words are used for so long, or so closely match a real sound, that they begin to be used to describe that actual thing that is making the sound in the first place. Here are a couple of examples to help you:

  • Slap – this sounds just like the sound of skin hitting against skin, and it’s now also the word people use to describe the act of hitting someone, usually in the face.
  • Cuckoo – this word so closely imitates the sound of a particular bird that people decided to use it to name the bird itself

To name things – some things are named for the sounds they make. For example, a zipper.

To create more expressive poems and creative writing – writers use onomatopoeic words to create different feelings and moods in their writing, or to more accurately describe a scene. You’ll often find these expressive words used in advertising and in comic books.

When should you use onomatopoeia

You can use onomatopoeic words whenever you’re trying to describe a sound. Use it in your writing to describe a scene, setting, or event more clearly, and use it in your everyday speech to talk about sounds you’ve heard – you can have a lot of fun making up your own words to describe these sounds too

We bet you’ve come across some onomatopoeic words that you love – either in English or your own native language – can you share some more examples with us? Have you learned them in your English lessons or on your own?

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