What Is Onomatopoeia: Definition & Examples

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that is used to describe a word that mimics the natural sounds made by an object or animal. An onomatopoeia is usually used to create an audio effect, and this could make a simple description more expressive, or even dramatic. For example, when you write “woof” to describe the barking of a dog, it can be considered an onomatopoeia. This is because an onomatopoeia strives to recreate a sound into writing. It could be the sound of engines grinding. It could be the honking of a car, the hissing of a snake, or any other kind of sound (Read the origin of English words).

The onomatopoeia comes from the Greek word, “onoma” and the “poiein”. The word “onoma” means “name” while the other word “poiein” means “to make”. The most common use of this word in English is first seen in words like “Onomastics” which means the study of words, their histories or origins, and how they were adopted into the English language.

The use of the word onomatopoeia began in the 16th century, but this does not count as the first time humans tried to create words from the sounds they hear. The growth of onomatopoeia only showed that we finally put a title on it. Also, experts have argued in the Bowwow Theory that most words in every language arose through an imitation of natural sounds.

Nevertheless, it is not every word that describes a sound that is an onomatopoeia. For example, the word “munch” is usually mistaken for an onomatopoeia. This is because our brains have been wired to think that the word sounds like the act of munching. But does it? Arguments have arisen in different intellectual circles as to what passes as onomatopoeia and what does not. However, there is an easier way to deal with it: if it works in a poetic situation, it might as well be an onomatopoeia.

Also read Where Do New Words Come from?

Examples of onomatopoeia


  1. The sound made by animals
  • Dog barks
  • Cats meow
  • Snakes hiss
  • Cats purr
  • Cows moo
  • Horses neigh
  • Lions roar
  • Dogs woof
  • Frogs croak
  • Frogs chirp
  • Duck quacks

And so on.

  1. The sound made by water or nature:
  • Rain splatters
  • Ocean roars
  • Rain pitter-patters
  • Lakes ripple
  • Streams rush
  • Waves crash
  • Oceans thunder
  • Bloop
  • Squirt
  • Dribble
  • Drip
  • Splash
  1. Sound of nature:
  • Thunder claps
  • Wind hisses
  1. Other examples include:
  • Gargle
  • Giggle
  • Bam
  • Clang
  • Jingle
  • Screech
  • Gasp
  • Whiff
  • Whoosh
  • Flutter
  • Yawns

…and so on.

Onomatopoeia has been consistently used in literature, and it has found its way into several popular poems. This is because it is a powerful tool of imagery, helping readers have a multi-sensory experience. Examples include:

  1. How they clang, and clash, and roar!
    What a horror they outpour
    On the bosom of the palpitating air!
    Yet the ear it fully knows,
    By the twanging
    And the clanging,
    How the danger ebbs and flows;
    Yet the ear distinctly tells,
    In the jangling
    And the wrangling,
    How the danger sinks and swells,—
    By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
    Of the bells.

Edgar Allen Poe, The Bells.

  1. There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling

Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling

Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering

Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering

And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering

Robert Browning, An Excerpt from The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Conclusively, an onomatopoeia can be used to create realistic representations of the sounds they want to portray. (What are the longest words in English?)


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