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Onomatopoeia -- What It Is and How to Use It

Updated on October 23, 2013
The buzz saw snarling and rattling creates tension in Frost's poem.
The buzz saw snarling and rattling creates tension in Frost's poem. | Source

Pow! Buzz. Hiss. Boom!

Onomatopoeia is a fun figure of speech. Comic book artists and graphic novelists use it all the time. However, this figurative language is not relegated to comic strips alone. Onomatopoeia can, in fact, be used for narrative effect. Poets often use it in narrative poetry; any writer can use onomatopoeia to make her story more dynamic.

Funky Winkerbean did it. D.H. Lawrence wrote with it. Lichtenstein painted it. Even Robert Frost used it. So, what are you waiting for? Let's look at some onomatopoeia examples and learn how to enrich our writing with onomatopoeia.

Roy Lichtenstein uses onomatopoeia in his comic-like art.
Roy Lichtenstein uses onomatopoeia in his comic-like art. | Source

Onomatopoeia Lesson | What is Onomatopoeia?

What is Onomatopoeia?

The definition of onomatopoeia is the mimicking a sound with a word. This literary device is used to convey the sense of the word. For example, "Mother Goose" tells us the sounds animals make in the nursery rhyme "Animals:"

Bow-wow, says the dog,
Mew, mew says the cat,
Grunt, grunt, goes the hog,
And sqeak goes the rat.
Tu, whu, says the owl,
Quack, quack, says the duck,
And what the cuckcoo says you know.

"Bow-wow," "mew," "grunt," etc. are examples of onomatopoeia.

Robert Browning uses onomatopoeia examples  such as "utter" and "mutter" in his poem.
Robert Browning uses onomatopoeia examples such as "utter" and "mutter" in his poem. | Source

Making children's literature funny is only one use of onomatopoeia. Writers use onomatopoeia to create vivid images in their work by replicating the sounds associated with their topic.Words such as "mutter" and "grumble" are also examples of onomatopoeia, which poet Robert Browning uses in his poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin:"

And the ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
The muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to mighty rumbling;

The words "utter" and "rumble" are also examples of onomatopoeia.

D.H. Lawrence uses onomatopoeia in describing piano sounds to evoke a memory from his childhood.
D.H. Lawrence uses onomatopoeia in describing piano sounds to evoke a memory from his childhood. | Source

Poems with Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is an example of how art imitates life. A poet uses onomatopoeia to create a sound within his poem, and therefore affect the power of the poem.

In his poem "Piano," D.H. Lawrence uses the word "boom" for the resounding sound of his mother's piano playing, a contrast to the delicate "tingling" of the strings inside the piano: "A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings..."

A sophisticated poet, Lawrence uses the contrast of "boom" with "tingle" and "tinkle" as an echo of the conflict of a man lamenting his lost childhood.

Robert Frost uses the literary device to build tension in "Out, Out-." He describes the sounds of the saw in his poem: buzz, rattle and snarl:

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it....And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled, As it ran light, or had to bear a load.

The harsh sounds of the words add menace to a tool that later kills a boy.

Poe experiments with onomatopoeia, using the sounds of various bells to create mood in his poem "Bells."
Poe experiments with onomatopoeia, using the sounds of various bells to create mood in his poem "Bells." | Source

In "Bells," Edgar Allan Poe makes a study of onomatopoeia, examining many bell sounds such as "clamor," "clang" and "jangle."

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!...


Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!

...How they clang, and clash, and roar!

He uses the different sounds to create different moods in the poem.

Types of Onomatopoeia

Source
Sound
Animals
meow, hiss, growl
Nature
whoosh, murmur
Machines
clank, clang
Tools
buzz, rattle
Actions
bam, boom

How to Use Onomatopoeia

Creating onomatopoeia poetry involves listening to the sound of the poem and evaluating how well it conveys the sound of the topic.

Certain topics lend themselves to onomatopoeia. Animals, tools and machinery all have many sound words associated with them. However, almost any action serves. For example, in her poem "Analysis of Baseball," May Swenson utilizes the words "thwack," "pow" and "dud" to replicate the sounds of a game for the reader. For your own poetry start with a suitable topic and brainstorm all the sounds that go with it. Think of actions, such as the swing of a hammer, as well as connections, when the hammer meets the nail, for instance. Write the words to refer to in the drafting stage.

Onomatopoeia -- not just for comic strips anymore.
Onomatopoeia -- not just for comic strips anymore. | Source

Onomatopoeia poems may tell a story or they might explore the sounds themselves. In "Bells," Edgar Allan Poe examines many bell sounds such as "clamor," "clang" and "jangle" using the different sounds to create moods in the poem. Experiment with mood by choosing words that indicate such sounds. Consider car noises, how they sound when the engine is revving versus idling. Conversely, follow Swenson's lead in drafting a story and using onomatopoeia to bring the action alive. Use strong verbs for the actions, and add sound words to make the scene vivid.

Once you have a draft of your poem, it's time to edit it to create the desired effect. Similar to Poe's use of onomatopoeia for mood, consider how Robert Frost uses the literary device to build tension in "Out, Out-." He describes the sounds of the saw in his poem: buzz, rattle and snarl. The harsh sounds of the words add menace to a tool that later kills a boy. Consider the tone of your poem. Ask yourself if you have onomatopoeia in the most effective places, such as beginnings or endings of lines and stanzas. Read the poem aloud to gauge the sound of the words. Analyze if any changes would improve the flow of the poem.

Onomatopoeia are not the only literary devices related to sound. Assonance, alliteration and, of course, rhyme also create sound in poetry. Before publishing your poem, polish it by evaluating every word choice, image and sound in the poem. In "Piano" D.H. Lawrence creates symmetry of sound with all four literary devices. For instance, the flow of the line "…vista of years, till I see…" relies on alliteration, the repeated "s," for effect. Writing poetry requires using all the available tools; onomatopoeia is a strong one for creating mood through sound.

Hubs About Poetry

Colonial Era Poetry: Poetry during the Colonial Period was usually devotional or metaphysical in nature.

Poetry in the American Romantic Movement: The Romantic Movement came later to the United States. Basics about the time period as well as analysis of Poe's and Dickenson's poems.

Poetry of the American Revolution Era: The American Revolution inspired and was inspired by songs and poetry. This article looks at a period song and a poem about a Founding Father.

Ace English Class: Literary Terms for Poetry: Poetry is the highest craft in the English language. Readers will enjoy poetry much better with an understanding of key poetry literature terms.

Comments

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    • profile image

      valerie morgan 

      7 months ago

      thank you . i am a poet, but undisciplined. i thought that was the best way. perhaps i shall change direction with such help as this... thank you ...

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 

      10 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Enjoyed this article. Good to know.

    • nArchuleta profile imageAUTHOR

      Nadia Archuleta 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      I love that poem, too. I remember it all the way back from my high school English class. Thanks!

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 

      5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Excellent topic, excellent advice and excellent hub. I love that you used Frost's Out Out as an example. That's one of my all time favorite poems. What makes the onomatopeia so natural in that story is that it sounds so natural. You don't even realize it's happening. It's a brilliant poem.

      Nice hub. Up and shared.

    • nArchuleta profile imageAUTHOR

      Nadia Archuleta 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Doesn't it, though? And I'm always so proud when I spell it right the first time! Thanks for stopping by.

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 

      5 years ago from Southwest England

      Very nice article - with fun illustrations and great examples, as well as useful literary tips on the use of onomatopoieas. I love the word onomatopoiea itself, it has a lovely ring to it!

    • nArchuleta profile imageAUTHOR

      Nadia Archuleta 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Cool -- I'll check it out. Thanks for stopping by!

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 

      5 years ago from United States

      Nice work my friend. I wrote a hub on the same subject. whonu

    • bearnmom profile image

      Laura L Scotty 

      5 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Very interesting article. I've bookmarked it to review again another time when I have time to digest it in it's entirety. I have the theory firmly in mind and plan to use it as I improve my writings. Thank you for the instructive article.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I actually learned about onomatopoeia when I was a little girl, and I just turned 70. You see, my grandmother introduced the word to me and told me it was the longest word in the English dictionary. She said that she learned that in school. I don't know if it was true then (about being the longest word) or later, but her talking about it to me made it stick in my memory. Even now, when I saw the word in print in the title of your hub, the first thought that popped into my mind ("POP!") was that conversation with my grandmother. The fact that I can recall it so vividly probably means I'm really getting old!

      Voted Up and Interesting

      Jaye

    • Man of Strength profile image

      Man of Strength 

      5 years ago from Orlando, Fl

      Great hub. This very useful, I think I will try an onomatopoeia. Voted up.

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