Onomatopoeia Definition

Onomatopoeia is defined as a word, which imitates the natural sounds of a thing. It creates a sound effect that mimics the thing described, making the description more expressive and interesting.

For instance, saying, “The gushing stream flows in the forest” is a more meaningful description than just saying, “The stream flows in the forest.” The reader is drawn to hear the sound of a “gushing stream” which makes the expression more effective.

In addition to the sound they represent, many onomatopoeic words have developed meanings of their own. For example, “whisper” not only represents the sound of people talking quietly, but also describes the action of people talking quietly.

Common Examples of Onomatopoeia

  • The buzzing bee flew away.
  • The sack fell into the river with a splash.
  • The books fell on the table with a loud thump.
  • He looked at the roaring sky.
  • The rustling leaves kept me awake.

The different sounds of animals are also considered as examples of onomatopoeia. You will recognize the following sounds easily:

  • Meow
  • Moo
  • Neigh
  • Tweet
  • Oink
  • Baa

Groups of Onomatopoeic Words

Onomatopoeic words come in combinations as they reflect different sounds of a single object. For example, a group of words reflecting different sounds of water are; plop, splash, gush, sprinkle, drizzle, drip etc.

Similarly, words like growl, giggle, grunt, murmur, blurt, chatter etc. denote different kinds of human voice sounds.

Moreover, we can identify a group of words related to different sounds of wind, such as; swish, swoosh, whiff, whoosh, whizz, whisper etc.

Onomatopoeia Examples in Literature

Onomatopoeia is frequently employed in literature. Below, a few Onomatopoeia examples are highlighted in bold letters:

Example #1

“The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees…”

(‘Come Down, O Maid’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Example #2

“Hark, hark!
The watch-dogs bark!
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, ‘cock-a-diddle-dow!'”

(Ariel in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act One, scene 2)

Example #3

“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.”

(For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway)

Example #4

“It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped,
And whirr when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.”

(“The Marvelous Toy” by Tom Paxton)

Example #5


“I’m getting married in the morning!
Ding dong! the bells are gonna chime.”

(“Get Me to the Church on Time,” by Lerner and Loewe)

We notice, in the above examples, the use of onomatopoeia gives rhythm to the texts. In addition, it makes the description livelier and interesting, appealing directly to the senses of the reader.

Onomatopoeia and Phanopoeia

Onomatopoeia, in its more complicated use, takes the form of phanopoeia. Phanopoeia is a form of onomatopoeia that describes the sense of things rather than their natural sounds. D.H Lawrence in his poem “Snake” illustrates the use of this form:

“He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the
edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness
He sipped with his straight mouth,…”

The rhythm and length of the above lines, along with the use of “hissing” sounds, create a picture of a snake in the minds of the readers.

Function of Onomatopoeia

Generally, words are used to tell what is happening. Onomatopoeia, on the other hand, helps the readers to hear the sounds the words they reflect. Hence, the reader cannot help but enter the world created by the poet with the aid of these words. The beauty of onomatopoeic words lies in the fact that they are bound to have an effect on the readers’ senses whether they are understood or not. Moreover, a simple plain expression does not have the same emphatic effect that conveys an idea powerfully to the readers. The use of onomatopoeic words helps create emphasis.

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