Playing With the Dramatic Sounds of Onomatopoeia Words

Friday, July 152 min read

Besides being a useful spelling bee challenge word, “onomatopoeia” is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named, such as “cuckoo,” or “sizzle.” The word emerged in the English language in the late 16th century, from the Greek onomatopoiia, meaning “word-making.” This came from the roots onoma, for “name,” and poios, “making.” Onomatopoeia is perhaps most notoriously used in classic comic books — “pow!” and “bang!” make a big impact on the page — but the linguistic tool has shown up in more literary settings, as well.

“Morte D’Arthur” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Victorian poet Tennyson, who succeeded Romantic poet William Wordsworth as England’s poet laureate, often used onomatopoeia to evoke whimsy and mystery. In his 1912 medievalist poem “Morte D’Arthur,” which chronicles the death of King Arthur, he utilized the linguistic tool to depict the sounds of water: “And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: / I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, / And the wild water lapping on the crag.”

“The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe

A contemporary of Tennyson, Poe wrote poetry across the Atlantic in America in the early to mid-19th century. Poe is among the most quintessential of gothic and horror writers for his ability to fill his work with unsettling sensory details, particularly with the use of onomatopoeia. In “The Bells”: “Oh, the bells, bells, bells! / What a tale their terror tells / Of Despair! / How they clang, and clash, and roar!”

“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning

Perhaps most remembered for his popularization of the dramatic monologue, British Victorian poet Robert Browning used onomatopoeia in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (first published 1842). This popular fairy tale, which many believe is based in truth, is about a piper who allegedly led children away from their families in Germany during the Middle Ages. Browning wrote: “There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling / Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling, / Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering, / Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering; / And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering…”

Ulysses by James Joyce

Many writers use the words already in the dictionary for their onomatopoeia needs, but Irish writer James Joyce was known for experimenting with language, and he certainly did with words to signify sounds. In his opus Ulysses (first published in its entirety in 1922), instead of “meow” (or “miaow” which is another standardized English onomatopoetic spelling for the sound cats make), his cats would say “mrkgnao” (even still using alternate spellings). Instead of “rat-a-tat” when someone knocked on the door, he used his own “tattarattat,” which some critics claim is the longest single-word palindrome ever used in English literature.

“Cynthia in the Snow” by Gwendolyn Brooks

African-American writer Gwendolyn Brooks was most active during the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. While she frequently wrote about the tribulations of the Black community in America using sensory language, perhaps the best example of her use of onomatopoeia is her poem “Cynthia in the Snow,” published in her 1956 book, Bronzeville Boys and Girls, which she wrote to celebrate the “joy, beauty, imagination, and freedom of childhood.” She wrote: “It SHUSHES, / It hushes, / The loudness in the road. / It flitter-twitters, / And laughs away from me. / It laughs a lovely whiteness, / and whitely whirls away, / To be / Some otherwhere / Still white as milk or shirts, / So beautiful it hurts.”

Featured image credit: olaser/ iStock

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