Listening To What We Write

The Greeks had a word for it. They called it "onomatopoeia," and they pronounced it AHN-uh-MAH-tuh-PEA-yuh. The word would have made a great college yell. It provides a topic for today’s meditation.

The literary device is defined as "the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it." As examples, Webster’s offers "buzz" and "hiss." A big bell "clangs." A little one "tinkles." As every child knows, the cow goes "moo" and the pig says "oink." We "bark" orders and "boo" villains.

A sound theory underlies the onomaht, i.e., that we read not only with our eyes but also with our ears. The smallest child, learning to read by reading about bees, needs no translation for "buzz." Subconsciously we hear the words on a printed page. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about the "tintinnabulation that so musically wells from the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells," et cetera, et damn cetera. Tennyson’s cannon "thundered." Byron heard a car "rattling o’er a stony street." Silently we heard the bells, the thunder, the rattle.

Like every other device of the writing art, onomatopoeia can be overdone, but it is effective in creating mood or pace. If we skip through the alphabet we find plenty of words to slow the pace: balk, crawl, dawdle, hobble, jog, meander, pace, trudge, and so on, to vamp and barely waddle. These verbs just sound slow.

By the same token, the writer who wants to write "fast" has many choices. Her hero can bolt, dash, hurry or hustle. Lancelot raced from Gwen’s boudoir. He fled. He skedaddled! He scrammed! Great verbs. They sound fast. And for the record: The verb "to skedaddle" dates in English from 1861. "To scram" came along in 1928.

One has to wonder, when one has nothing else to wonder about, why almost all of the "ump" words sound unpleasant. Think of them: bump, clump, dump, frump, grump and hump. We ordinarily mess up if we jump to a conclusion. We are wary of a bodily lump. You will note that there is never just one mump — mumps always come in twos. This is very singular. We boo the ump. We pump out the basement and blow up a stump. We denigrate the mugwump (1884): He sits on the fence with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.

Why are some combinations of vowel and consonant so unpleasant? Think about the "ag" words. The bag woman is ragged. She’s a hag! The perilous cliff is jagged. A broken-down horse has been a "nag" since the 15th century. The verb "to nag" (constantly to complain, badger or annoy) dates only from 1828. It didn’t turn into a noun until 1925. The verb "to sag" (to droop, lose form or vigor) came from Norway in the 14th century. To "lag" appears in the early 1500s, to "gag" a century later.

Only two even moderately pleasant "ag" words come quickly to mind: wag and tag — and even these have their unpleasant aspects. A "wag" is a joker who’s not as funny as he thinks he is, and a "tag" can cost you 50 bucks for overparking in D.C. Did you know that "to gargle," the verb, dates from 1527? The noun didn’t appear until Listerine came along in 1629. I made that up.

There must be many onomahts that have a happy sound. What about the laugh words? Professor Rodale’s Synonym Finder gives us, alphabetically: cackle, chuckle, chortle, giggle, guffaw, haw-haw, snicker, snigger, titter, tee-hee and yuk-yuk. There’s also "to cachinnate" (1824), "to laugh loudly or immoderately," but "to cachinnate" lost its cachet in 1825 and hasn’t been heard from in years.