Saturday, December 9, 2017


There is a salient aspect of language that I haven’t handled hitherto--not alliteration, as in these consecutive h-words, but onomatopoeia, Greek for name-making. What it really means is what occurs when a word’s sound echoes or represents the thing that it denotes. I recur to the examples given by J. H. Cuddon in his excellent “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” from Penguin Books, which I strongly recommend to one and all. In it, he offers examples of onomatopoeia that I intend to look closely at. They are: “dong, crackle, moo, pop, whizz, whoosh, zoom,” all well chosen.

Somewhat puzzling is the first one, “dong,” perhaps even embarrassing at first sight. My Heritage Dictionary gives as its first, nononomatopoeic definition, a Vietnamese currency. Pretty obscure, that; but not so the second definition, “a penis, vulgar slang. (Origin obscure.)” The Random House Dictionary, on the other hand (pun not intended), lists also “the deep sound like that of a large bell. (Origin unknown.)” This latter definition, curiously, does not appear in the Heritage. The reason, I would guess, being that in overwhelmingly most cases it is not the intended one. In more recent versions of the OED (the important Oxford English Dictionary), it is part of “ding-dong,” as the imputed alternating sound of a ringing bell..

In “Alice in Wonderland” we get also a person’s nose “with a luminous dong,” and in Australia, a dong may signify a heavy blow. The newer OED also cites Philip Roth’s Portnoy handling his dong. In the penis sense, to be sure, there is no immediate onomatopoeia, so let us stick with the bell sound.

Cuddon next cites “crackle.” This the Heritage defines as making “a succession of short snapping noises as of a fire in a wood stove.” Or, in the verb version, “to show liveliness, energy or intensity as in a book that crackles with good humor.” The first example is clearly auditory, the second more figurative. Either way, a sound or potential sound is implied.

Next comes “moo,” the sound of a cow, which various languages describe thus or in  some similar way. So the verb in French is transformed into the more melodious “mugir.” In German, we get the verb “muhen,” and the noun “Muh.” The M needed to clinch the onomatopoeia, is perhaps a trifle arbitrary.

Next comes “pop,” for which the dictionaries give a number of definitions, some of them visual but enough of them auditory, for a sudden snappy noise. Notable among the many definitions is the one for a male orgasm elicited manually. This so-called “hand job” I had experienced from a Bennington girl specializing in the operation to avoid total commitment, and not generally auditory. (Vide also Bill and Monica.) The sound is largely associated with the uncorking of champagne bottles.

Cubbon’s next is “whizz” or “whiz.” This is defined as “making a whirring or hissing sound” with the descriptive adjectives themselves onomatopoeic. It is often defined as the sound of an object speeding through the air, or, nonauditorily, as any quick movement by a person. Related is the “whizz-bang,” suggestive of the rustling of a fuse leading to an explosion. Notable, too, is the meaning, not always auditory, of something conspicuously effective, successful, or skilled, as, for instance, a good speech, with the onomatopoeia only remotely applicable.

“Whoosh,” next, is defined as “a sibilant sound,” like the whoosh of a high-speed elevator. It is also an onomatopoeia for the darker sound of some liquid violently tossed from a bottle, perhaps at a hostile person’s face.  The “oo” sound is also used for wind, as in the title of “Gone With the Wind,” in translations usually grabbing the U diphthongized as “ui,” thus the Hungarian “Elfujta a szel” (I lack the needed acute accent), or the Serbian “Prohujalo kao vihor.” Oddly enough, the English title has no U in it. which can come either as an “oo” in “room”, or in a diphthong like the English “you,”  or “oui, ” like the French for yes.

“Zoom,” serves similar purposes as whoosh, but it is grander, perhaps referring to an astronomical movement of comets or meteors. It is less likely to denote sound then, alhough it does so, a bit lower, for the buzz of a plane overhead.

So much for Coddon’s examples. But what for other onomatopoeias? How about the song, or the very name of, the nightingale? That name, in English, is not onomatopoeic, merely visual as in “night,” when the nightingale sings, to be replaced by the morning lark. (See “Romeo  and Juliet,” in the bedroom scene.) No word this for onomatopoeia. More so in German, as “Nachtigall,” with the two A’s suggesting a staccato in the song. Hence also the German name for these birds’ singing, “schlagen,” i.e., to beat (a s in Heine’s famous poem), for, to be sure, a rather delicate kind of hammering. But does onomatopoeia lurk in these avians’ very names?

Not much in the unaccented U of the Serbian “slavuj,” But quite a bit in Hungarian, where the bird has two names, the poetic “cselegeny,” with the rising, accented E in the third syllable, and more so in the common name, “fulemule,” with  a treble-making diacritic mark on both U’s, and the internal rhyming repetition making it more avian. This is curiously like the modern Persian or Turkish nightingale, “bulbul,” again with the treble-inducing diacritic mark (or umlaut) on both U’s, and again with the duplication in the name, probably to indicate an aural onomatopoeic flow. But what about “cselegeny”? Here the open E’s of the first two syllables have the same duplicating effect, perhaps all these devices conveying a lyrical, onomatopoeic continuity.

There is, incidentally, a kind of onomatopoeia even in the French term “rossignol,” maybe as a derivative from the Spanish “ruisenor,” with a tilda on the N. The “senor” part confers seigneurial nobility on the bird, while the “rui” may well be a corruption of “rey,” which confers actual avian royalty—all very euphonious as well.

So much from me. But the reader is encouraged to come up with his or her own onomatopoeias. That brings me to the point of this essay: the onomatopoeic musicality of the language the reader may seek out in his or her own verse. For, let’s face it, many people, clandestinely or not, write verse, a charming trait, regardless of whether transparent. Onomatopoeia makes for euphony.

Here then is a spur toward, or a desirable delight in, onomatopoeia--all for your participatory enjoyment or actual active exploration.


  1. " J. H. Cuddon ..."
    It's J.A.: John Anthony Bowden Cuddon (1928 – 1996)

  2. Not yellow peril

    Ching chong ching chong
    Chinaman has a little dong
    Tho against his leg can’t slap
    Still able to produce a clap

    Then over it a sack must slip
    Else on his sandal it will drip
    Producing scandal if he slide
    Over braid his robe it ride

    Invasion of this other culture
    Not attended to in future
    Left to nature and not nurture
    Making water are rays torture

  3. Faulkner hears the onomatopoeia in the word “gust” and then defines the sound for us!

    ”There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away….”

    1. My Top 5 American Authors:

      5) Hemingway
      4) Chandler
      3) Poe
      2) Melville
      1) Faulkner

      Hon. mention: Crane, Vonnegut, Twain

  4. Replies
    1. Not a fan of Wolfe. Kesey has one of the greatest novels ever written, but not much else. I'd put them in the 15-20 range. The other two would be 9 (Fitzy) and 10 (Steinbeck).

      I'm not counting poets, either. Only novelists. Poets have their own list which I'll divulge at a later date.

      Incidentally, Poe would be on both lists. The only one on both lists.

    2. PS, not sure if Poe would be considered a "novelist", but he wrote beautiful prose.

  5. Well, since this topic is so dull....

    1. Loved it, esp. when Fry remarks on Laurie's love of American native high-grade narcotics. L.'s facial response is priceless, and it looks like he's about to break, prolly b/c Fry was the notorious cokehead. Thanks for the linque!

    2. For those who might have never read it, here's a linque to Nick Tosches' porno take on "A Christmas Carol", titled "Sleazy Greetings and a Happy Nuke Year":

    3. Perfect timing! Just when I've had it up to here with all the holly jolly stuff! Thank you.

    4. Thanks @Joe Carlson, I typed it in myself, and have always had a vague fear Tosches would track me down and rearrange my face for doing it!

  6. The Sword of Grammar Pleas

    Why the silence of the iambs?
    Who better at poetry slams?
    Afraid to trip my poetic feet,
    That the wrath of Ivan I will greet,
    Ripped each and every clumsy bleat.

    Shall I commit, brave the spit,
    The harrumph, the condescension,
    The crinkled nose, as if one
    Has squished a pile of shit?

    The click of the bilingual tongue,
    The hoots in every language sung,
    Come child, I hear, coo coo,
    Take a step, though the board creak,
    The ancient literary giant pique.

    What's the worst, give it a shot,
    To be declared a poet, not?
    What am I waiting for,
    Afraid of the lion's roar?
    Be as bad as you can be, strive!
    It's what keeps my hero alive!
    Something clumsy, something stiff,
    Just to hear the great man sniff.

    To be repulsed is to have a pulse,
    Come all ye grammatical masochists,
    For his grinding mill some grist,
    Rage pumping thru the righting wrist,
    Be proud to be on the enemies list!

    Works like an enema, such relief,
    To shout -ignorance beyond belief!-
    The heady draughts of rarified air,
    To bellow -this draft's beyond repair!-
    Like milk from a virgin coed's breast,
    Daily attesting to which "lie" is best.

  7. Some words are onomatopoeic but not technically onos.

    Like slip, sneeze, breeze, cough, flip, skip.

    But blip and clunk are onos.

    Chunky. Full. Deep. Gel and jello. Boobs. Buns. Slither.
    Spread. Hop. Flow. Slam. Squeeze. Cram.

    1. I tried to come up with new onomatopoeic words.

      zoouw--describes the feeling of brain freeze, (usually followed by an exclamation mark, as in: "zoouw!"

      zazz--is the sound of a zipper going up

      zizz--sound of a zipper going down

      fuupe--is the sound of a muffled sneeze

      ooeeek--the sound of microphone feedback

      gloop--a stuck boot coming out of the mud

      floop--a turd hitting water

      mlip(and mlup)--similar to "click or clack" but describes the sound of soft-shoe dancing

  8. Ah do believe

    An emoji is a sightful onomatopoeia
    A raised middle finger an inciteful see ya
    One rightful blinks Texas hit on by hee ya
    Woodman is frightful of hearing from Mia

  9. Merry, merry. Happy, happy.