Onomatopoeia (on-uh-mat-uh-pee-uh) refers to words that resemble or sound like the sounds they describe or, in other words, the naming of an action by a phonetic representation or imitation of the sound associated with it. Think of words such as crash, tick-tock, hiss, waa-waa, hoo-hoo, and whoosh.

Writers use onomatopoeia to stimulate the reader’s auditory sense and create rich soundscapes in writing. When you read the word splat, doesn’t it automatically invoke a mental image of something wet having hit a surface? Or, when you read the word achoo, can’t you almost hear the sneeze? Such is the power of onomatopoeia! Writers of comics especially use onomatopoeia to show sound effects.

Onomatopoeic words can be real words, made-up words, or letters representing raw sounds. For example, the letters zzzzzz mean someone is sleeping or snoring.

Onomatopoeic words can differ across cultures and languages. For example, woof is typically used to denote a dog’s bark in English. But, the onomatopoeic words for a dog’s bark changes in various languages. Check out how ‘woof’ is represented in other languages:

  • English: woof, woof; ruff, ruff; arf, arf; bow wow; yap, yap; yip, yip (for small dogs)

  • German: wuff, wuff; wau, wau

  • Spanish: guau-guau; gua, gua; jau, jau

  • Korean: meong, meong

  • Hindi: bow, bow

What is the big deal about onomatopoeia? Or... Why should I use onomatopoeia?

The use of onomatopoeia makes one’s written and spoken language more expressive, impactful, and memorable. Check out the following examples to see the impact of onomatopoeia and to learn a variety of onomatopoeic words.

Onomatopoeic words related to the sound of water

1. Dribble

Meaning: Flowing in drops; rhythmic striking of a ball against a hard surface

Example: I could hear the dribble of the basketball from court 1; Poonam was obviously practicing early.

2. Drip

Meaning: The sound of a liquid falling drop by drop

Example: All I could hear was the drip of the rain from the roof.

3. Drizzle

Meaning: Very light rain

Example: The drizzle of the rain gave a dreamy and ethereal feeling to the resort.

4. Splash

Meaning: The sound of made by something falling into or striking water

Example: Ramesh fell into the pond with a mighty splash!

5. Spray

Meaning: A dispenser that turns a liquid (such as perfume) into a fine mist

Example: You can almost hear the spray from the waterfall!

Onomatopoeic words that indicate vocal utterances

1. Ahem

Meaning: A sound made especially to attract attention or to express disapproval or embarrassment.

Example: Professor Geetha: “Shall I, ahem, leave you and the blackboard alone for a moment?”

2. Belch

Meaning: A reflex that expels wind noisily from the stomach through the mouth.

Example: Anuj must have eaten a sumptuous lunch; his belching sounds very contented!

3. Grunt

Meaning: The short low gruff noise of the kind made by hogs

Example: He gave a non-committal grunt in reply.

4. Groan

Meaning: An utterance expressing pain or disapproval

Example: Richard's jokes make you groan rather than laugh.

5. Squeal

Meaning: Utter a high-pitched cry

Example: The children squealed with delight when the pizza arrived.

Onomatopoeic words that indicate sounds made by objects

1. Bang

Meaning: A vigorous blow

Example: Residents heard an enormous bang as a safety valve on the boiler failed.

2. Clang

Meaning: A loud resonant, repeated noise

Example: Cowbells clanged across the endless green fields.

3. Clatter

Meaning: A rattling noise (often produced by rapid movement)

Example: The pans in the kitchen clattered as they crashed to the floor.

4. Ding

Meaning: A ringing sound

Example: The trolley came by, dinging noisily.

5. Crunch

Meaning: Press or grind with a crunching noise

Example: She heard the crunch of tires on the gravel driveway right before the accident.

Onomatopoeic words related to the sounds made by air

1. Swish

Meaning: A vigorous blow

Example: With a swish of the curtains, the stage was revealed.

2. Whizz

Meaning: Move along very quickly

Example: The bullet whizzed by, missing the fugitive by barely an inch.

3. Swoosh

Meaning: Move with or cause to move with a whistling or hissing sound

Example: A bullet swooshed over my head.

4. Whip

Meaning: A quick blow delivered with a whip or whiplike object and the sound made during such an action

Example: The whip whistled as it moved to strike the horse.

5. Whoosh

Meaning: The noise produced by the sudden rush of a fluid (a gas or liquid)

Example: The train sped through the station with a whoosh.

Onomatopoeic words that indicate animal sounds

1. Hee-Haw

Meaning: Braying that is characteristic of donkeys; laughing loudly or harshly

Example: While the Americans write the donkeys' braying sound as ‘hee-haw’, the British use ‘eeyore’.

2. Chortle

Meaning: A soft, partly-suppressed laugh

Example: As the teacher listened to the little boy's excuse for forgetting homework, he started to chortle in amusement.

3. Warble

Meaning: Sing by changing register; sing by yodeling

Example: Was that you I heard warbling in the bathroom this morning? You sing well!

4. Cheep

Meaning: The short weak cry of a young bird

Example: We heard the birds cheeping as their mother fed them.

5. Purr

Meaning: A low vibrating sound typical of a contented cat

Example: While purring is not always a sure-fire sign of a cheerful cat, for the most part, it can be an indication of feline contentment or even bliss.

There are many other animal-related onomatopoeic words such as neigh, oink, baa, moo, cluck, buzz, ribbit, quack, honk, hiss and gobble.

Onomatopoeia is a stylistic way to up your writing game and hook your readers. For instance, rather than saying, “I made eggs and bacon for breakfast” one could say, “The coffee machine buzzed as the coffee dripped down to the cup while I cracked open an egg, vigorously whisked it and poured it on the pan. The bacon frying in the pan hissed as I plopped the omelet onto my plate.” Which description creates a vivid mental image in your mind?

However, the right way to use onomatopoeia to make a bold point is by using it sparingly and carefully.

Now here is a task for you! Try and have fun with onomatopoeia by explaining, ‘How do you make your coffee or tea’?

Do send us your onomatopoeic stories!