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What are Onomatopoeic Words?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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Onomatopoeic words are words that, when pronounced, imitate the sound that they describe. The word “boom,” for example, is not only a word that indicates a loud noise, but it also mimics the resounding report of an explosion or similarly large noise. Words like “buzz” and “click” are also onomatopoeic words. The word “onomatopoeia” comes from Greek. In Greek, the word onoma means “name,” and the word poieo means “make” or “do.” Therefore, the word onomatopoeia literally means “the making of names.”

There are a number of theories regarding how language came about. One theory is based on onomatopoeic words. This theory, postulates that language, and words in particular, arose from humans trying to imitate the sounds of the world around them. If this is true, then it would mean that the onomatopoeic words that we use today are much like the very first words that our ancestors spoke.

Many onomatopoeic words describe the sounds that animals make. From a very early age, we learn that a dog barks, a cat meows, a horse neighs, and a lion roars. Interestingly, every language has onomatopoeic words. However, there are many different variations of onomatopoeic words. In some cases, onomatopoeic words are very similar across languages.

Can you imagine what English word the Dutch word miauw relates to? In Hebrew the same word is miyau. In Finnish, German, Hungarian, and Italian, the word is miau. By now you have probably guessed that these words are all translations of the English word “meow.” They all seem to simply describe the same noise, just with different spellings. The same is not true, however, for the onomatopoeic word that describes the noise a cat makes when it is happy. Examples:

Danish: pierr
English: purr
Finnish: hrr
French: ronron
German: srr
Hungarian: doromb
Japanese: goro goro
Russian: mrrr

While the Danish, English, Finnish, German, and Russian versions of this word are similar, there are some variations between them. The French, Hungarian, and Japanese versions of “purr” however, are quite different. Certainly, cats all over the world make pretty much the same noise when they speak. What makes the difference in these translations, however, is how that noise was interpreted by speakers of the language. For another interesting example of very different translations of onomatopoeic words, research the different versions of “woof.”

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By jlmk — On Jan 30, 2011

The word "crunch" is one of my favorite onomatopoeia words. I love to use that word when I'm writing and want to describing the sound of someone walking through fallen leaves in autumn.

By write79 — On Jan 28, 2011

@anon13239 -- The only difference I can find between onomatopoeia and an onomatopoeic word is that onomatopoeia refers to the formation of the word that makes the sound of its name, while an onomatopoeic word refers to the word itself. However, they are basically the same thing.

By anon13239 — On May 22, 2008

please tell me the differences of onomatopoeia and onomatopoeic word! please answer me as soon as possible. Many thanks

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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