Why Do We Use Onomatopoeia?

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Few words are as fun to say as
onomatopoeia
, but what the heck does it mean?

Despite its complex look and sound, onomatopoeia actually has a simple function in the English language. It’s defined as “the formation of a word, as
cuckoo, meow, honk,
or
boom,
by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent.”

To put it simply, it’s a word that sounds like what it means.

WATCH: What Kind Of Words Are Onomatopoeia?

Onomatopoeia in the wild

Recorded in English by the late 1500s, the word
onomatopoeia
comes from
onomatopoiía
, which is Greek for “the making of words.” In Greek,
ónoma
means “name” and
poi
comes from
poieîn
, that is, “to make.”

Most people’s first experiences with onomatopoeia actually come from television. You might recall a certain 1960s version of
Batman
, in which the sounds of his fights appeared on the screen in brightly colored pop-up bubbles.
Bam
!
Pow
!
Zop
!

But, Batman wasn’t the only television character to make use of onomatopoeia. Shaggy from
Scooby-Doo
famously said
zoinks
whenever he was scared. Looney Tunes characters signify drinking with
glug, glug, glug.

In real life, we use onomatopoeia for all sorts of sounds. Cats
meow
, cash registers go
ka-ching
, shoes
squeak
, birds
chirp
, pigs
oink
, and bored humans go
pffffft
.

Why do we use onomatopoeia?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about onomatopoeia is that it exists all over the world. It is not a uniquely American or English thing to make words from sounds. As journalist Uri Friedman notes in
The Atlantic
, “in Swedish, the sound of a small dog barking is rendered as
bjäbb-bjäbb
; in Turkish,
hev hev
; in Japanese,
kian kian
.” (In fact, we have a whole article about this if you want to know more.) Many cultures have their own words that imitate common sounds. Some linguists even theorize that language itself evolved from humans trying to imitate sounds in the natural world.

There are words in the English language that may not look to us like onomatopoeia, but could be. The word

owl

, for instance, was first recorded in English before the year 900 as the Middle English
oule,
pronounced
oo-lay
, which may have come from an attempt to mimic the owl’s hoot. Similarly, the word

laugh

comes from the Middle English
laughen
, which is believed to be closely related to the German
lachen
, the Old Norse
hlǣja
, and the Gothic
hlahjan
, all of which are thought to represent the sound of laughter.

Even though English is an established language, we’re still making new onomatopoeic words. Consider the
untz
that many of us use to signify the beat of popular music, the
pew-pew
we associate with the sound of lasers, or the
tap
of someone typing out a text message on their phone. As long as humans have new sounds to discover, we will continue to create new words to describe those sounds.

And, just for fun here’s some more onomatopoeia you likely use every day without even realizing it:

You


zip


your pants before you head out the door to work every morning.

Your phone


pings


to let you know you have a new email or you

ping

your coworker when you need to ask them a question.

You


giggle


at the meme your bestie just texted to you.

Fresh, hot coffee


drips


from the Keurig machine as you


munch


on avocado toast.

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