An onomatopoeic word is a word that sounds like the article, verb or adjective it is describing. Think about how the word “crunch” sounds like the actual sound produced when you “crunch”, for instance.
These words can improve your writing by giving a dramatic effect that brings to life the subject matter that you’re presenting to the reader – and here are 25 onomatopoeic words that will improve your writing and turn you into a writer that writes with an audible impact!
Let’s start with the onomatopoeias that animals make. Dogs are normally presented as making the “woof” sound to represent the barking sound that they make. Sheep make the “baa” sound and roosters make the “cockle a doodle doo” sound. All three of these are highly conventional and truth be told, a little bit on the boring side.
Not all dogs make the ‘’woof’’ sound so let’s look into this a bit more – perhaps some of them make a sound more like this when they bark: “ruff” That is, they have a deeper tone to their bark than the word woof makes it out to be; “woof” is a bit too friendly, “ruff” denotes aggression and menace.
Likewise we can present sheep as making a sound that can be written as “bargh” or “baaaaa” because there is a deeper, guttural tone to their sound than is commonly perceived.
A good tip for animal onomatopoeias is to think about every letter that you write rather than going for the childhood cliches that you were presented with.
Roosters could also be presented as making this sound: “cock a cock a doo”. Noticed how I’ve tried to present the tone and intonation more accurately compared to the the sound that we’re told roosters make – originality makes you memorable!
Perhaps the toughest onomatopoeic words to write are those associated with water.
In the 1600 years that English has been alive, nobody has yet to introduce satisfactory onomatopoeic words for fish or whales; John Belushi made a joke about this in the film Animal House when he squirted some water from his mouth in order to imitate a whale!
Probably the best sound to imitate a whale is to write it as “phwargh”. Maybe you can try something else? Catfish often come to the surface to eat and make a sucking sound when they do – “slurp”? “Gargle”? The word gulp is a little plain, but it’s often the only word that fits!
Fish that live in shallow waters also love to splash which can be more accurately be written as swish which could be written like this: “The fish strove to eat the bread on the surface, making splashes with a swish from their tails.”
Let’s move onto machines and the onomatopoeias that they create.
Clang, bang and rev are all common onomatopoeias that represent the complex sounds that various machines will make.
A “clang” could be made by the hammer of a blacksmith hitting the anvil but the sound I heard when I was walking past one a few months ago sounded more like a “ching” sound.
Does a gun go “bang”? Some guns do, but a lot of them don’t! Some have a very high pitch that can be better represented as “pfft” while an artillery shot has a very deep boom that could be written as “bwoom”.
Similarly in music, drummers bang on “drums”, but there are a lot of different drums to bang on which all produce different noises. Careful note should be made of this when writing about music as not all bangs are the same. Is it a “boom”. A “snare”? A “tack”? A “clatter” or a “clash”?
This morning someone was revving their motorbike engine for five minutes just outside my room. It sounded more like a “hrum” than a rev!
How would you write an onomatopoeia for a jackhammer? We can easily imitate it with our mouth but to write it down and a credible onomatopoeia is an achievement. “Dah-dah-dah” perhaps might be a good solution for this problem. For this you’ll need to listen closely to the sound it makes, and then try to annotate the letters that you hear onto the page.
A wrecking ball would commonly be said to “smash” into a building but this comes across as a purely factual account of something dramatic. Other industrial sounds are the “hissing” of hydraulic brakes (as a truck comes to a stop) or the “whirr” sounds that machines make when they’re running at a very high speed.
What We Sound Like
What of the onomatopoeic words for sounds that we make in our daily lives, both intentional and unintentional?
We “slurp” on our soup, which is a great onomatopoeia and to me doesn’t need any updating. We can also gulp, burp, hiccup and gargle as we eat. These actions are not the most pleasant noises that we can make (!) but they do make for great onomatopoeias that everyone can understand because everyone makes these noises!
We also make plenty of noises on purpose as well.
We clap often, which actually sounds like a “click” when done at a fast pace. I’m typing on the keyboard but whenever I bash on the space bar, it makes a “da-duh” sound. It’s just something that I’ve noticed just now. We make plenty of “crashing” sounds as well. Note though, that we don’t crash into bed – we “flop” onto it!
We groan when someone tells an ordinary joke and we “grumble” when asked how our day was at work. These last 2 have an emotional connotation which we can all relate to.
“Moaning” is one of the most common onomatopoeias that represents complaining (or… something else), but is it one the most accurate? It certainly is accessible to everyone who reads it. But when we’re in pain we “urgh” and “argh” to express our plight. This conveys emotion a lot better than moaning does.
Expressive onomatopoeic words are difficult to write as they must fully capture the emotion of the moment. So, we “ha-ha” and we “guffaw” instead of laugh. We “howl” instead of crying and “shriek” instead of shout when in danger. We say “hmm” and “umm” when we contemplate and think about something.
Improving Your Onomatopoeias With Sounds of Everyday Movements
Finally, there are the everyday events that pass unnoticed.
How would you write about making your bed using onomatopoeic words? Would you “thump” the blanket on the bed? “Slap” the pillow sheets over the pillows? “Tussle” the sheets over the edges of the bed?
It takes considerable practice to write effective onomatopoeias but I would recommend an exercise for you to improve your writing.
Take notice of every sound that you hear for the next 10 minutes and try to write the sounds you hear as an onomatopoeia. It’s a lot harder than you think at first but it illustrates the gap between the vocabulary that we’ve learnt and the sounds of the world as we actually hear them.
At the moment I can hear a pipe gushing with water and a diesel truck humming its engine. Perhaps I could write a “shhhhhh” to represent the hissing pipe, the truck could be said to “vroom” repeatedly in quick succession because that is the sound of a diesel truck at low revs. And now there is an ice cream vendor with a song “chirping” out to alert potential customers that it’s time to “gobble” and “slurp” down some ice cream. This is followed by a “chiming” bell which actually makes a sound more like a “chim-chim”.
Expression Through Sound
Hopefully, you can improve your writing onomatopoeias for effect, as well as a way to illustrate the scenes and characters that you’re writing about.
To rise above the cliched and hackneyed is the duty of every writer and one of the first things we can do is to think carefully about the noises that we hear everyday.
There is a considerable gap between how we’re allowed to express ourselves through conventional onomatopoeic words and the actual sounds that are made. This gap can be closed by thinking carefully about which onomatopoeias we should use to express ourselves.
Photo by Josh Sorenson on Unsplash