Beyond “Toot” and “Bang” — Words You Didn’t Know Were Onomatopoeias

Monday, June 52 min read

“Onomatopoeia” is a specific term for words that resemble sounds. Ask a toddler, and they can likely tell you a cat goes “meow,” and a dog goes “woof.” Animal sounds are some of the most obvious examples of onomatopoeia, as are exclamations such as “bang” and “pow.” However, there are plenty of words that entered English centuries ago as onomatopoeias, but their original sounds have faded. Let’s listen in to some of these forgotten onomatopoeias.


In the 15th century, honey-making insects were called “humbul-bes.” The term was imitative of the bees’ humming sound while buzzing (“hum” and “buzz” are both onomatopoeias) through the air. Eventually, the word shifted to the contemporary “bumblebee.” In Great Britain, “dumbledore” is a synonym for “bumblebee,” which is why the name Albus Dumbledore is translated as Albus Brumbál in Czech versions of the Harry Potter books (Brumbál is a Bohemian word for “bumblebee”).  


A trite or worn-out expression is called a “cliché” — a term inspired by a sound. In the 1800s, printing machines created countless versions of the same design. When the block on the device was pressed down, it made a clicking noise, and in French, the word for “clicking” is cliché. From the printing machines reproducing unlimited copies, “cliché” came to mean “commonplace” sometime in the 1920s.


“Haha!” That’s how the sound of laughter in English is written. These “hahas” are actually etymologically related to the word “laugh” — in late-14th-century Old English, folks used hliehhan to depict laughter. The English word “laugh” was initially pronounced with a hard “-gh” sound at the end (think of the Scottish loch), but the spelling remained even when the pronunciation softened to “laff.”


A child will tell you an owl says “hoot.” But speakers of Old English heard the creature cry ule, and in Middle English, it was “oule.” This eventually morphed into the modern word “owl,” a name inspired by an ancient wail.


Though invented in England in the late 19th century, Ping-Pong has been an Olympic sport since 1988. The activity is officially called table tennis, but it was nicknamed “Ping-Pong” because of the distinctive sound the ball makes when it hits the paddle and bounces off the table.

Featured image credit: staticnak1983/ iStock

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