Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Onomatopoeia

Hiss. Buzz. Shuffle. Bam. Bonk. Sizzle. Clunk.

I've always been a fan of onomatopoetic words--words that imitate the sounds associated with certain objects or actions. For example, murmur, one of my favorite onomatopoetic words, imitates the sound a murmur makes, and whisper, another of my favorites, re-creates the sound made when someone speaks softly. Try saying any of the words I've listed above out loud, and you'll see that they all imitate the sounds associated with their meanings. (You can find two good lists of onomatopoetic words here and here.)

Onomatopoeia is wonderful literary device that can work to the writer's advantage in helping to bring stories and poems to life. Of course there's a danger, as there is with all literary devices, of going overboard, but when used thoughtfully and judiciously, onomatopoeia can be an effective writing tool.

Achoo.

Oh, excuse me.

Probably one of the most famous uses of onomatopoeia occurs in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells." In this poem Poe makes use of onomatopoetic language to describe the tolling of the bells he hears. Take a look at these five lines from the first stanza:

Hear the sledges with the bells--
             Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
       How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
           In the icy air of night!

Can you hear the bells tinkling? You can read the rest of the poem here. Notice how the sounds get darker and more ominous as the poem nears its conclusion.

Other poets have used this device as well. For some examples of obvious and not so obvious onomatopoeia in poetry, see this article.

Please excuse me now. I must end this post. The wind is whooshing through my open window, rustling the papers on my desk and jangling the window blinds, and the cheep and chirp and chatter of the birds urges me to take my coffee and shuffle outside to enjoy the day.



How effective do you think onomatopoeia is as a literary device? Is it distracting, or does it add something? Do you ever use onomatopoeia in your writing?

36 comments:

  1. Maybe I'll try to use onomatopoeia in a poem today. I'll try to be subtle because I don't want to be hit over the head with it (unless I'm reading a Shel Silverstein or Dr. Suess poem).

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    1. Yes, that's the trick, isn't it?

      Have fun with your poem! We should do some poetry wars on Twitter sometime. :)

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  2. Onomatopoeia is not only a great literary device, it's also one of my favorite words! :)

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  3. I love onomatopoeic words. Used in writing (in mdoeration) they help the reader to hear a sound rather than just read about it.

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    1. Exactly!

      Thanks for your comment. :)

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  4. I love those words too. I just love the word onomatopeia!

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  5. I've always loved Pow! It's a fun one I always associate with comic books.

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    1. Pow is a great one! I also feel a real affinity for shuffle. :)

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  6. I love love love onomatopoeia! I use it when I can, but usually I use the more subtle words--like rustle.

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    1. Rustle always makes me think of leaves. Love it!

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  7. What a way you have with words!
    Wonderful post.

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  8. I guess I never consciously think about it.
    Great post!

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  9. this is such a great word to play a game with kids

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    1. Thanks for the idea! It'll be great for when my kids are a little older. :)

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    1. My daughter was just driving around the living room in her brother's toy car, and she kept pushing the button that makes it say "Vroom." Love it! (The word, that is. I get a little tired of the car...)

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  11. Great post! You've got me thinking about my favourite words and how they sound!

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  12. My son had to pronounce the word for me. For the girl with straight A's in spelling and language and English, I think I am getting dumber with age.

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    1. "They" always say that it's having kids that makes us dumb. I have to believe I was at least a little smarter before I had mine. ;)

      Thanks for reading!

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  13. How interesting. I feel like I have learned something today! Did not know what those kind of words were called. Enjoyed this will be back to look around. Thanks for stopping by my corner and following. I am your newest follower, well as of right now. :)

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    1. You're welcome--and thanks for the follow!

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  14. The John Prine song always goes through my head when I hear that word.

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    1. I'm not familiar with Prine, but I looked up the lyrics to the song and can certainly see why you're reminded of it. :)

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  15. Just breezing in... or whooshing by... Fun, fun, fun!!!

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  16. I generally allow them to come naturally, even not realizing I am using one until I either reread or come to the editing process. Of course, some occasions warrant the use of onomatopoeia and it is at that juncture that I deliberately, albeit rarely, find one.

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    1. I use them more deliberately in my poetry, but in my prose, I work much the same way as you do.

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  17. Onomatopoeia is one of the favorite lessons I teach in my 5th grade class. It engages the kids and they come up with some very clever poems. "Splat" is my favorite O-word. New follower here from the A to Z.

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    1. I loved teaching it as well! The students always seemed to have fun.

      Thanks for following!

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