The Word: Fun with sounds

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

I've been thinking about onomatopoeias a lot lately. I like the concept.

It is clear why the word for cat-speak is "meow" and why loud noises go "boom." It is comforting that other languages not even related to English tend to agree that cats more or less go "meow" and loud noises are "booming."

If only all words could be onomatopoeias, it would be a simpler world. SAT scores would go through the roof. Language barriers would be broken.

The obvious obstacle to making this happen is that most words are not inherently related to sounds. Not all objects make noises, "concepts" are abstract and therefore determinately silent, and prepositions don't intuitively translate into audio.

However, onomatopoeias don't have to indicate a correlation between word and sound. Sometimes onomatopoeias refer to a noise only tangentially related to the meaning of the word itself.

For example, take the word "cliché." Originally, it was a technical term, used by printing press workers in France in the 1800s to refer to the metal printing plates cast from movable type.

These plates were synonymously referred to as "stereotypes." During this time, a single plate (a cliché or stereotype, that is) was used to print multiple copies of newspapers and books.

So where does the sound, the onomatopoeic part of the word, come in? Printing plates don't make noise.

Be patient. When they're being forged from molten metal, they do. In the typesetting process, when the mold for an individual letter struck the molten metal of the printing plate ... cliché! ... the letter was forged into the plate.

Because each plate was used repeatedly as a mold, "stereotype" eventually began being used as a metaphor for a set of perpetually repeated, preconceived notions. The word "cliché" followed suit, over time developing a slightly varied meaning, usually referring specifically to trite and overused expressions or ideas.

Another not so obvious onomatopoeia is the word "blimp." This is the object more formally known as a dirigible, less formally known as those silly floating airbags that often sport advertisements.

Reportedly, "blimp" was coined in 1915 when Lieutenant A.D. Cunningham of the British Royal Navy Air Service decided to flip his thumb against the side of the inflated bag of gas. This made a noise. He imitated it. "Blimp!" he said. (I like to imagine he also giggled.) And a word was born.

Additionally, consider "Ping-Pong," otherwise known as table tennis. Again, this common term was coined based upon an associated noise. In case it wasn't clear, Ping-Pong is supposed to approximate the sound of a hollow ball hitting the hard surface of the paddles and/or the table.

The respective etymologies of "blimp" and "Ping-Pong" suggest that coining phrases can be as simple as merely slapping an object, listening for whatever sound comes out, and then naming said object or associated concept after that noise.

For the sake of fun thought exercises ... what would language sound like if every possible word were onomatopoetic? Take pronouns, for example. Could "he" be connoted by a low grunt? Could "she" be a higher pitched chirp?

Perpetuating gender stereotypes is clearly at stake here. But the grunt/chirp system could also lead to interesting areas of gradation. That is to say, what noises lie in between a grunt and a chirp? Individuals could be at liberty to decide this, to choose their own preferred pronoun from an endless spectrum of noises and pitches.

Yet before we get to any of this, before we go around hitting objects in search of new words and changing up pronouns, I think we need to take a step back and consider the word "onomatopoeia" itself.

It's frustratingly ironic that the word for such a simplistic linguistic concept is itself so cumbersome, unintuitive and difficult to spell. Apparently, it stems from ancient Greek.

But if it were up to me, onomatopoeias might be called "boomwords" or "meowvocab." This would be so pleasingly illustrative, self-referential, and well, onomatopoeic.

Boom. Problem solved.


Katie Brigham is a photo and multimedia intern with the Post-Gazette. Sometimes she muses about language but still has no idea how to spell onomatopoeia. You can ping her at or @katie_brigham. First Published August 18, 2013 12:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?