Onomatopoeia Definition and Examples

Sean Glatch  |  April 15, 2023  | 

What is onomatopoeia? To describe it in a zip, an onomatopoeia is a word that smacks the reader’s ears and makes them pop. Onomatopoeia words describe sounds by copying the sound itself.

Crash! Bang! Whiz! An onomatopoeia doesn’t just describe sounds, it emulates the sound itself. With this literary device, you can hear the meow of a cat, the whoosh of a bicycle, the whir of the laundry machine, and the murmur of a stream.

While some onomatopoeia words might seem juvenile to use, there are many more words to choose from. These sound devices can texture your writing with style and flare, while also drawing the reader into the world of your writing. So, let’s listen to this delightful tool that revs in the writer’s toolkit. We’ll take a look at some onomatopoeia examples in literature and discuss the surprising poetics of this euphonious device.

But first, let’s start with the basics, defining what an onomatopoeia is and isn’t. what is onomatopoeia?

Contents

Onomatopoeia Definition

An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like the noise it describes. The spelling and pronunciation of that word is directly influenced by the sound it defines in real life. All onomatopoeia words describe specific sounds.

Onomatopoeia definition: a word that sounds like the noise it describes.

Some onomatopoeia examples include the words boing, gargle, clap, zap, and pitter-patter. When these words are used in context, you can almost hear what they describe: the boing of a spring, the clap of chalkboard erasers, and the pitter-patter of rain falling on the pavement like tiny footsteps.

Including onomatopoeia words in your writing can enhance the imagery of your story or poem. Technically, onomatopoeia is not a form of auditory imagery, because auditory imagery is the use of figurative language (like similes and metaphors) to describe sound. But, an onomatopoeia can certainly complement auditory imagery, as both devices heighten the sonic qualities of the work.

Note that not all onomatopoeia words are words listed in the dictionary. Many authors have made up their own sounds to complement their writing. In our onomatopoeia examples, you’ll see nonce words like “skulch,” “glush,” and “pit-a-pat.”

Sometimes, when these nonce onomatopoeia words are used often enough in everyday speech, they become dictionary entries. The etymology for “tattarrattat” is James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is also the longest palindrome in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Check Out Our Online Writing Courses!

From the Source: Journaling for Self-Knowledge and Creativity

From the Source: Journaling for Self-Knowledge and Creativity

with Amy Bonnaffons

April 24th, 2024

Journal to discover yourself, find a wellspring of creativity, and produce publication-ready pieces.

how to craft a poem

How to Craft a Poem

with Zining Mok

April 24th, 2024

A poem can tell a story, communicate our innermost thoughts, and reveal what moves us most deeply. Craft poems that do all of this and more in this guided poetry workshop.  

poetry writing class

The Joy of Poetry: A Beginner-Friendly Workshop

with Joy Roulier Sawyer

April 24th, 2024

Have you wanted to get into poetry, but don't know where to start? Learn the craft from the Joy of poetry herself in this welcoming workshop.

writers dot com book design

Free Event: The Talking Stick with Donna Levin

with Donna Levin

April 25th, 2024

Join us for a free reading with Donna Levin, who will be reading from her new novel The Talking Stick, published through Skyhorse Publishing. The reading will conclude with a Q&A about Donna's novel and writing process. 

First 50 Pages of the Novel

The First Fifty Pages of the Novel

with Sandra Novack

May 1st, 2024

The first 50 pages sets up plot, characters, and voice, and it lays the groundwork for your book's overall structure and success. Receive critical, supportive feedback on your book's start from novelist Sandra Novack.

Onomatopoeia vs Phanopoeia

A relative of onomatopoeia, phanopoeia is a literary device in which the general sensation of something is emulated in the sounds of the words that the author uses.

This is easier demonstrated than explained. Read this short poem below, by Franz Wright:

Heaven​​

I lived as a monster, my only
hope is to die like a child.
In the otherwise vacant
and seemingly ceilingless
 
vastness of a snowlit Boston
 
church, a voice
said: I
can do that–if you ask me, I will do it
for you.

In bold is phanopoeia. The repetition of “s” sounds, as well as the spaciousness of the poem’s stanza breaks, resembles the sounds of echoes in a mostly empty church. The reader can experience the vastness of the church through alliteration and stanza breaks. There is a sonic and spacious quality to the poem that the reader, if attentive, can climb into and never leave. The poem does not have onomatopoeia, however: none of the words used are emulating real life sounds.

How to Pronounce Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is pronounced “On-oh-mah-tow-pee-uh.” The bolded syllables are stressed.

It’s a weird looking word, right? Onomatopoeia comes from the Greek “onoma” (word or name) + “poiein” (to make). In other words, this literary device is “word making,” as these words are invented using the sounds that they describe.

Poiein is also the root of the modern words “poet” and “poetry,” as the Greeks viewed the act of writing poetry as an act of invention, creating something from nothing.

Onomatopoeia Examples in Literature

Let’s take a look at how authors have used this device in some onomatopoeia examples.

“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning

Read the full poem here.

Just as he said this, what should hap
At the chamber door but a gentle tap?
Bless us, cried the Mayor, what’s that?
(With the Corporation as he sate,
Looking little though wondrous fat);
Only a scraping of shoes on the mat?
Anything like the sound of a rat
Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!

This poem, which is about the invasion of rats in a town called Hamelin, makes frequent use of onomatopoeia to emulate the sounds of scurrying rodents. Words like tap, scrape, and pit-a-pat situate the reader into the narrative poem’s anxiety and rat problems.

“I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died” by Emily Dickinson

Read the full poem here.

I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed—and then
I could not see to see—

There’s only one onomatopoeia here, and that’s the word buzz. The poem’s speaker hears this one final sound before her death. Thus, the buzzing carries a dual meaning: it is both figuratively and literally the only sound of the poem, and after that, silence.

“Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio” by Carl Sandburg

Read the full poem here.

It’s a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes.
The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts.
The banjo tickles and titters too awful.
The chippies talk about the funnies in the papers.
The cartoonists weep in their beer.

The chaotic, cacophonous sounds of this poem perfectly emulate the feeling of being in a jazz bar. The instruments mixed with the peoples’ conversations overwhelms the reader, and the poem’s structured improvisation resembles jazz itself.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Read the full text here.

He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.

This brief line offers so much context and imagery. With only the onomatopoeia words “pounding,” “clack,” and “clicks,” the reader can imagine a man standing at the edge of a cliff, overwhelmed by the grand endlessness of the world, feeling the terror of falling as pebbles skitter down the rocky earth.

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

Read the full poem here.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

This poem’s tapping and rapping are so repetitive, the reader must feel how the speaker does—distracted and overwhelmed by an incessant sound. Poe is a master of using language to emulate sound: another poem of his, “The Bells,” repeats use of the word “bells” so much that the poem itself begins to jingle.

“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

Read the full poem here. 

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—

Langston Hughes is a prominent voice of the Harlem Renaissance, capturing the sound and vitality of mid-century Harlem, New York. This poem’s sounds and overall musicality capture the liveliness of the era, situating the reader in the sweet and soulful atmosphere of a blue’s bar.

Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

Read the full text (with annotations) here.

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.

James Joyce is famous for inventing and torturing language—to the point that native English speakers don’t recognize their own mother tongue. That long bababada word is an onomatopoeia that is supposed to represent the sound of thunder during the fall of Adam and Eve. While this nonce word may seem nonsensical, it actually pulls from a variety of languages, including the word “thunder” in Swedish, Hindi, Japanese, Danish, Gaelic, French, Italian, and Portuguese.

“I Was Sitting in McSorley’s” by E. E. Cumming

Read the full poem here.

the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warm-lyish wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops she says I ploc spittle what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo

he’s a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple together eyes pout gestures stickily point made glints squinting who’s a wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly foot

steps every goggle cent of it get out ears dribbles soft right old feller belch the chap hic summore eh chuckles skulch. . . .

E. Cummings’ Modernist poetry sought to translate experiences exactly as they happened. In “I Was Sitting in McSorley’s,” that experience is being drunk in a famous bar in the East Village, Manhattan. Cummings uses a variety of onomatopoeia words to capture the sounds and iniquities of the bar: real words, like tinking and slush, capture the sounds of drinks and glasses. But also, made-up words like glush, skulch, and ploc have a more disgusting sound to them, attempting to represent the grossness of the bar.

“Cynthia in the Snow” by Gwendolyn Brooks

It SHUSHES.
It hushes
The loudness in the road.
It flitter-twitters,
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirs away,
To be
Some otherwhere,
Still white as milk or shirts.
So beautiful it hurts.

This poem has great onomatopoeia examples and phanopoeia examples. The repeated “sh” sounds make this poem feel blanketed by snow. You know how, after the first snowfall, the entire world is hushed? How there’s barely a breeze and no one outside and the sounds are muffled in blankets of “lovely whiteness”? This poem captures that through sound, making it an excellent onomatopoeia poem.

“TV People” by Haruki Murakami

You can find an archive of this story here. Originally published in The New Yorker, and then in Murakami’s collection The Elephant Vanishes.

The TV people exit and leave me alone. My sense of reality comes back to me. These hands are once again my hands. It’s only then I notice that the dusk has been swallowed by darkness. I turn on the light. Then I close my eyes. Yes, that’s a TV set sitting there. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking away the minutes. TRPP Q SCHAOUS TRPP Q SCHAOUS

Murakami is an endlessly inventive storyteller, and what I love most about this onomatopoeia example is how specific the sound is. Rather than describe a simple “swish” or “whir” of a moving pendulum, Murakami invents something that feels incessant, swift, and mechanical. When you try to speak this onomatopoeia out loud, you come pretty close to speaking the sound.

Onomatopoeia Words

The following onomatopoeia list includes examples of the device that can be found in the dictionary.

Make note of two things: first, there are many onomatopoeia examples that exist outside of the dictionary. Because these words attempt to represent real sounds, they can be made up for whatever occasion in your own writing.

Second, some onomatopoeia words have multiple definitions. “Jingle,” for example, sounds like Christmas bells, but it also means a catchy song for advertising.

Some onomatopoeia words have multiple definitions. “Jingle,” for example, sounds like Christmas bells, but it also means a catchy song for advertising.

Try to use these fun sound words in your own writing!

General sounds

  • achoo
  • bam
  • bang
  • bash
  • beep
  • belch
  • blah
  • blab
  • blast
  • blow
  • boing
  • boo
  • boom
  • boop
  • burp
  • buzz
  • cha-ching
  • chortle
  • clack
  • clackety-clack
  • clang
  • click
  • clink
  • clap
  • clang
  • clop
  • creak
  • crunch
  • crackle
  • ding
  • ding-dong
  • dong
  • doink
  • drip
  • fizzle
  • flap
  • flick
  • flop
  • flush
  • gargle
  • gibber
  • groan
  • grunt
  • gulp
  • gurgle
  • gush
  • hiccup
  • honk
  • hum
  • jingle
  • kaboom
  • kapow
  • kerplunk
  • knock
  • lurch
  • mumble
  • munch
  • natter
  • patter
  • ping
  • plop
  • plunk
  • pong
  • pop
  • pow
  • puff
  • pulse
  • rap
  • raspy
  • rattle
  • ring
  • rumble
  • rustle
  • scrape
  • shuffle
  • sizzle
  • slam
  • slash
  • slosh
  • slurp
  • snap
  • spit
  • splash
  • split
  • swish
  • swoosh
  • thud
  • thump
  • tick
  • ting
  • tock
  • toot
  • twang
  • vroom
  • whip
  • yackety-yack
  • yak
  • yammer
  • yap
  • zap
  • zing
  • zip
  • zoom

Animals

  • arf
  • bark
  • bleat
  • bow-wow
  • bray
  • buzz
  • chirp
  • chomp
  • clip-clop
  • cluck
  • cock a doodle doo
  • coo
  • cough
  • croak
  • croon
  • crow
  • cuckoo
  • drone
  • growl
  • hiss
  • hoot
  • howl
  • mew
  • meow
  • moo
  • neigh
  • oink
  • peep
  • purr
  • quack
  • ribbit
  • roar
  • ruff
  • screech
  • sniff
  • snort
  • splat
  • squawk
  • squish
  • squeak
  • squelch
  • thwack
  • tweet
  • warble
  • wallop
  • woof
  • wolf

Expletives

  • ah
  • aha
  • ahem
  • argh
  • eek
  • ew
  • guffaw
  • ha-ha
  • hmm
  • hoho
  • huh
  • ohh
  • phew
  • ugh
  • uhh
  • um

Objects

  • awooga
  • ba dum tss
  • brring
  • chime
  • choo-choo
  • clogs
  • clunker
  • crash
  • crinkle
  • flip-flop
  • gong
  • oom-pah
  • pew-pew
  • popcorn
  • rap
  • tap
  • wail
  • whistle

A Note on the Translation of Onomatopoeia Words

Onomatopoeia words present an interesting conundrum to linguists and translators. Because these devices seek to directly emulate sound, one would assume that onomatopoeia words are the same across languages.

Oddly enough, this isn’t the case. For example, while in English the sound a dog makes is “woof” or “arf,” some Spanish speakers represent the dog’s bark as “guau;” in Japanese, “wan wan,” and in Catalan, “bup.”

How can this be? If you just speak English, you probably won’t hear “bup” no matter how much you listen to your dog. This conundrum points towards the unconscious ways that language shapes reality. The languages we speak restrict the sounds that we can produce and readily hear, so while an English speaker certainly hears their dog woof, a Japanese speaker undoubtedly hears their dog’s wan wan. (The Japanese language also possesses numerous onomatopoeia words, more than most languages do. Take a look at this list to see how Japanese language speakers hear sounds differently than English speakers.)

At the same time, many onomatopoeia examples in the English language come from Latin and Greek. “Bowwow,” for example, is influenced by the Latin baubor and the Greek bauzein, words which themselves are likely onomatopoeic. Of course, Latin and Greek root words make up about 60% of the English language dictionary. Perhaps that influences why we hear what the Ancient Greeks and Romans heard?

By noticing the ways that culture and language shape onomatopoeia words, you can also notice the many possible sounds that language hasn’t yet captured. The onomatopoeia is an experimental literary device, so play around with it, research how sounds are transcribed in other languages (for fun!), and lean into the possibilities of words and sounds.

Why Use Onomatopoeia in Your Writing?

Onomatopoeia words serve many different functions in writing. These include:

  • Resembling Real Life. By capturing the sounds of everyday life in language, the writer makes the world of their story or poem much more accessible.
  • Playing With Language. Onomatopoeia words can be very experimental, and whether the writer uses existing words or comes up with new onomatopoeia words, this device offers a playfulness with language that all writers should embrace.
  • Drawing the Reader in. For the most part, readers love onomatopoeia words. These words are fun, interesting, and compelling to the reader, and they help establish the mood of a certain passage.
  • Writing Comics. Comic book writers and graphic novel writers often rely on onomatopoeia words, both pre-existing and made-up, to show sound effects and keep the story interesting.
  • Style. An easy way to add texture and variety to your writing style is with this literary device.
  • Developing Mental Images. Although an onomatopoeia is not imagery on its own, it does help build a mental image of the writing’s sights and sounds. Imagery and “show, don’t tell writing” are essential tools in the author’s toolbox.

Explore Onomatopoeia at Writers.com

Want practice in fine tuning your onomatopoeia words? Whether you’re writing poetry or prose, the courses at Writers.com are designed to help every author on their writing journey. Take a look at our upcoming course schedule, where you’ll find courses for all writing levels that offer the support and structure you need.

Sean Glatch

Sean Glatch is a poet, storyteller, and screenwriter based in New York City. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Milk Press,8Poems, The Poetry Annals, on local TV, and elsewhere. When he's not writing, which is often, he thinks he should be writing.

12 Comments

  1. Donald McMiken on December 8, 2021 at 8:12 pm

    A nice piece of writing that gives us writers a push to think more about the sound of our words as well as their meaning.

  2. chris on October 17, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    now we are making animal sounds in class randomly thanks to this website slayyyyyy

    • Sean Glatch on October 18, 2022 at 3:28 am

      Omg slayyyyyyy

      • auro on October 26, 2022 at 4:54 am

        slay souls sister

        • Sean Glatch on October 26, 2022 at 4:55 am

          slay that mister mister on the radio

  3. Jane Patricia Namukose on December 3, 2022 at 8:32 am

    Lovely information

  4. Claudia on April 15, 2023 at 7:19 am

    In catalan we don’t say “taula” (that means “table” hahaha). For “woof” we use “bup”.

    • Sean Glatch on April 15, 2023 at 7:24 am

      Hmm, I wonder why I thought that… 🙂 Thanks for mentioning this, Claudia!

  5. Claudia on April 17, 2023 at 5:54 am

    Glad I could help! 🙂

    • Mc Donaldson on October 4, 2023 at 12:08 am

      Thx for the wonderful information it helps us alot!

  6. Derek Murphy on July 25, 2023 at 12:59 am

    cool, I like the way you organized these!
    oom-pah
    pew-pew

  7. Emma Johnson on November 5, 2023 at 4:09 pm

    Love the way that they are alphabetically organised because I have ocd.

Leave a Comment