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Onomatopoeia, Alliteration, and Rhyme Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 15, 2011

Onomatopoeia

The term onomatopoeia comes from the Greek for "word-making." It means the employment of one or more words to imitate, echo, or suggest the sound of the thing or action described. Such words include bang, click, fizz, hush, buzz, moo, quack, and meow. When you pay attention to the sounds of our language, you soon realize how many of our words are onomatopoetic: bounce, boom, clap, clang, crackle, hiccup, ping pong, pitter-patter, plop, poof, snore, swoosh, slither, slop, splat, thud, tick-tock, and zap.

In Spunk and Byte: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style, author Arthur Plotnik writes on the value of using good sound words like click and gulp, whomp and wallop, garble, gobble, and squawk. Onomatopoeia represents sound on the page even when we can't find a word to do it: brrrinnggg, ka-ching, vroom, thunk, ka-zoom, and psht psht, for instance.

Here are several examples that are often chosen from literature to illustrate the use of onomatopoeia:

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (www.heise.de/ix/raven/Literature/Lore/TheRaven.html) includes "the silken, sad, uncertain/Rustling of each purple curtain," rustling being a word that mimics the sound the curtain is making.

Lord Byron wrote in part LXXVIII of "Canto the Seventh" (www.onlineliterature.com/byron/don-juan/8/):

      Bombs, drums, guns, bastions, batteries, bayonets, bullets,—
      Hard words, which stick in the soft Muses' gullets.

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in "The Princess, Part vii" (http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/25334-Alfred-Lord-Tennyson-The-Princess—part-7-):

      Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn,
      The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
      And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Taking lessons from poets, we can infuse both our poetry and our prose with onomatopoeia by concentrating on using verbs, adjectives, and nouns that imitate the sounds of the lives we are portraying. If you want to talk about how a brisk household employee walks, you might use onomatopoeia in a verb: "All day, her heels clicked their way between the kitchen and the living room." If you want to show the way a dripping faucet bothers a lonely man as he is trying to fall asleep, you can use onomatopoeia in nouns: "The drip, drip, drip of the tiny kitchen's sink faucet kept him awake as if it were the dawn to dusk chirping of a chipmunk in heat." Here is a phrase with an adjective that has onomatopoeia: "The snappy rhythm of her pea shelling made him feel welcome."

Try This

You can practice using onomatopoeia by concentrating on describing the sound of events in your experience. In the passage I wrote about garbage collection day in Los Angeles, using onomatopoeia came naturally. Here it is again:

On garbage collection days, the disposal company my husband calls Loud and Early slams and smashes its way into our sleep. We hear garbage cans scrape the top of the thick rusty truck, then clatter across the asphalt and cement of street and curb. When we hear the garbage truck grind the dregs of our existence to a pulp, we slide our feet to the floor. A police helicopter hurls its hello from overhead, shaking the walls and shattering any memory of our dreams.

Describe a noisy situation you routinely encounter. Look for opportunities to use onomatopoetic words or inventions.

Next, choose a quiet place to describe; are you using words like whisper, shush, and hum?

And try this: Write about a person you know well. Describe the sound this person makes as he or she goes about some part of their daily routine or enters a room. Does this person clank a row of coffee cups? Crack gum? Snap rubber bands?'

Finally, play with onomatopoeia this way: ascribe sound to other senses. For instance, here I've given a sight image a sound: Sunlight crackled through the broken window.

You can give sound to smell: Her perfume sashayed through the room before she did.

You can give sound to taste: The curry clamored over his uninitiated tongue like an invading army.

And you can give sound to touch: Her fingers hushed over the 1,000 thread-count sheets.

Sometimes words sound like something feels: sleaze, grease, sneer, glitter, wrinkle, and pulp, for instance. These, too, are vibrant words in description and combine well with onomatopoeia: The grease sizzled in the hot iron pan, splattering into the depths of her wrinkled apron.

Give this a try: Describe a person involved in some action (like cooking, sewing, playing ball or tennis or golf, gardening, or driving) by using words that imitate the sound of the action as well as words that sound like something feels:

He placed the golf ball on the tee, taking pleasure in the feel of its dimpled surface. When he hit the ball correctly, the thwack of his club left him exhilarated. He bent down to retrieve the tee and walked confidently toward his next shot, the wheels of his pull cart chirping over the grass.
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