A few years ago Frito-Lay introduced a bag for their snack chips that was made from plants, not plastic, and could decompose in compost. It seemed like a good idea – a company putting their environmental foot forward through sustainable packaging – however, the “rip” heard upon opening the bag of chips registered at about eighty-five decibels – equal to the volume level of city traffic. Customers complained and a quieter bag was designed. This amusing dilemma inspired the question: How do you describe these sounds in language? You’ve likely heard “rip,” “pow,” and “snort” described as examples of onomatopoeia, but what exactly does this mean?
An onomatopoeic word is one whose sound is imitative of the sound of the noise or action it is describing. Derived from the Greek onomatopoios – “the making of a name or word” – common onomatopoeic words include animal noises such as bark, meow and roar, and mechanical sounds like click, clank and beep.
Not to be confused with ideophones, which are words that use sound as a means of describing sensory data (eww or bling for instance), onomatopoeic words literally imitate the sound they refer to– they are exactly what they mean.
To some extent, onomatopoeia follows the rules of their linguistic system. For example, the sound of a clock is ticktock in English – the onomatopoeic translation in Japanese is katchin katchin. There are even some words that were named directly as a result of their sound – “zip” and “zipper” are classic examples.
What are some of your favorite onomatopoeic words? Let us know, below.