What is Onomatopoeia?
Hello from Lillie, your friendly English teacher and artist! In my 17 years of teaching ELA, one of the most fun types of figurative language to explore has been onomatopoeia, because its definition is so delightful. However, this literary device also causes stress because it’s hard as heck to spell. Read on for tricks about how to use this term correctly, illustrated by my colorful cartoons and lively sentences.
Definition and Meaning of Onomatopoeia
The definition of onomatopoeia is easy and awesome. The term means SOUND EFFECT words, or letter arrangements that sound just like what they describe! Onomatopoeia appears whenever words mimic corresponding real-life sounds.
Examples of Onomatopoeia Words
Classic examples of onomatopoeia are the sounds effects written in comic books: BOOM! POW! CRASH. BAM. POP! WHOOSH. CRACK! Other instances are the utterances humans make to express emotions, like “Ouch!” or “Aww,” or my favorite, “YARGH!”
Animal, nature, and machine sounds are also onomatopoeia: “Tick-tock” (for a clock), BARK! (for a dog), “drip-drop” (for rain), and whir (for a machine). Many words are initially invented as onomatopoeia, which then leads to their official name: “Zipper” being one example. Fun fact, “Bash Bish Falls” is often accidentally called “Bish Bash Falls” because that’s onomatopoeia for the sound the waterfall produces!
Punctuation and Formatting of Onomatopoeia
In writing, words that are onomatopoeia are sometimes written in italics, ALL CAPS, or “quotation marks” to show that they’re sounds, but many examples of onomatopoeia are just written in normal lettering. Ex: “The lion let out a roar, then ate the octopus in one gulp.” In that sentence, “roar” is onomatopoeia, but it has no special stylistic formatting.
Spelling Across Languages
Onomatopoeia words often differ by language and culture. For example, a pig says, “Oink” in English, but in French the onomatopoeia is, “Groin-groin.” Meanwhile, a cow says, “Moo” in English but “Mu” in Spanish (similar sounds with different spelling). There is a fascinating compendium of Japanese onomatopoeia here if you’d like to explore this more.
Can You Make Your Own Onomatopoeia?
Though spelling of many examples of onomatopoeia words are formalized, for random, fictional, or new words, you are allowed to make up the spelling yourself based on the sound you’re trying to convey.
For example, if you’re writing a story about a fictional veggie-cutting machine, you can explain that it made the sound, “KER-KLUP!” if that’s the noise you envision the mechanism making as it slices through celery. Onomatopoeia has led to numerous fabulous new words being made up! Speaking of spelling…
How to Spell Onomatopoeia
I’m an English teacher, but I find spelling “onomatopoeia” to be insanely difficult. Incorrect versions I’ve written include: onomatapia, onamatapia, onomatapoeia, anamatapoia, onomatopoia, onomotopeea… and the list of mistakes goes on and on. There are just so many vowels that sound similar here, meaning the word’s pronunciation gives little clue to its spelling! (This is ironic, because the term is all about sound providing information.)
To assist in this arduous spelling quest, I’ve come up with the following trick to help to remember the letters of “onomatopoeia” and their order: ONO (like the artist Yoko Ono), MAT (like a door mat), O (the shape your mouth makes with some sound effect words), POE (like author Edgar Allan Poe), and IA (like “I Agree”). Yes, it’s a forced and ridiculous mnemonic device, but it gets the job done. (For another silly but effective spelling lesson, check out “How to Spell Dilemma.”)
How to Pronounce Onomatopoeia
The six-syllable word “onomatopoeia” is slightly easier to pronounce than it is to spell. Say: “Aah-nuh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh.” Once you get the hang of the pronunciation, the word is rhythmic and kind of hilarious to say — almost like the sound of a horse galloping!
Origin and Word Parts of Onomatopoeia
What’s the origin of this tongue twister of a word? The word “onomatopoeia” originated in the 1500s from the Greek “onoma” (which means “word or name”) and “poiein” (which means “to make”). Basically it means, “make a word based on how something sounds!”
Onomatopoeia in Songs, Poems, and Literature
Onomatopoeia VIDEO Lesson:
Why Use this Literary Device?
The reason figurative language like onomatopoeia is used is because these literary devices spice up writing, making it more immersive and interesting. If you’re reading or listening to something that says, “Suddenly, a CRACK of lightening tore through the sky,” you can really envision and hear the scene, feeling like you’re there.
Alliteration and Onomatopoeia Sentences
Ready to get crazy? Sometimes onomatopoeia spans several words, meaning a whole phrase mimics the sound it’s describing. This is particularly evident in the presence of alteration: when a series of words with the same first sound are placed together.
For example, examine the sentence: “Soft sands and shimmering surf called to me at the beach.” The repeated “s” sound (alliteration) becomes onomatopoeia because it mimics the “ssshh” sound ocean waves make at the beach as they lap against the sand!
Onomatopoeia and Beyond
BAM! Thus concludes our entertaining exploration of this literary device. POW! Hope you enjoyed it like WOW! Feel free to leave comments with some of your favorite examples of onomatopoeia, or request the next ELA lesson for me to illustrate. Do browse my other English grammar and vocabulary articles here:
- “Aww” vs. “Awe”
- Metacognition Definition and Strategies
- Commonly Confused Words
- Whose or Who’s
- Everyday vs. Every Day
- What is Context?
- Tone vs. Mood
- Juxtaposition Examples
- Apart vs. A Part
- Liminal Space
- Weather vs. Whether
- Words that Make You Sound Smart
- Foreshadowing Definition and Examples
The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other two sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009) and TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010). Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!