The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Onomatopoeia: From the Greek for “name-making,” wording that seems to signify meaning through sound effects. Onomatopoeic words, such as hiss and sizzle, ostensibly imitate the sounds they represent; onomatopoeic passages more broadly suggest an association between sound and meaning.

EXAMPLES: Many animal-sound words, such as moo, purr, and quack, are onomatopoeic, as are mechanical-sound words such as beep and vroom. “Suck was a queer word,” the child Stephen Dedalus thinks to himself in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916):

The sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.

Theodore Roethke’s “The Storm” (1958) contains several onomatopoeic lines, including the following:

While the wind whines overhead,

Coming down from the mountain,

Whistling between the arbors, the winding terraces …

Comic books often use onomatopoeia; in early Batman issues (1940— ) words such as bam, thwack, and wham generally come accompanied by one or more exclamation points.