Onomatopoeia – Definition, Meaning, Use & Examples

28.02.24 Academic writing Time to read: 10min

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Onomatopoeia stands as a fascinating subject within the realm of linguistic studies. This stylistic device offers a bridge between the sounds of the real world and the abstract representations of language. In academic writing, the exploration of onomatopoeia enriches our understanding of linguistic creativity and unveils the intricate ways in which language can mirror the sensory experiences of life.

Onomatopoeia in a nutshell

Onomatopoeia is a special kind of word that sounds like the noise it is describing. The word is pronounced as “on-uh-mat-uh-PEE-uh” in standard American English. For example, “meow” sounds like the noise a cat makes, and “buzz” sounds like the noise a bee makes. So, when we use onomatopoeic words, it’s like the word itself is making the sound it represents. It’s a creative way to add a bit of pizzazz to writing or drawings, like in comics.

Definition: Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that refers to words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they describe. Essentially, it’s when a word sounds like what it represents. Common ones include “buzz” like the noise a bee makes and “hiss” which imitates the sound of a snake. These are often used in literature, poetry, and everyday language to create vivid and sensory descriptions. They allow us to convey sounds through words, adding richness and detail to our communication.

In linguistics, onomatopoeia refers to a word or sequence of sounds that imitates or suggests the source of a non-vocal sound, such as a noise produced by an object or natural phenomenon. It is a vague term that encompasses a wide range of linguistic expressions that mimic real-world sounds. They are frequently used to evoke sensory experiences and create vivid imagery in language, enriching communication by directly representing non-vocal sounds through vocal means.


  • The rain pitter-pattered softly against the windowpane, lulling me to sleep.
  • With a loud crash, the vase shattered into a thousand pieces on the tiled floor.
  • The baby let out a contented sigh as she drifted off to sleep, her breathing soft and steady.


The term onomatopoeia has its roots in Greek. It comes from the combination of two Greek words:

  • “onoma” — meaning “name” or “word”
  • “poiein” — meaning “to make” or “to create”

So, when we put these together, it literally means “to make a word” or “to create a name.” Often, people misspell the word as “onomonopia.” This likely occurs due to the phonetic similarity between the correct spelling “onomatopoeia” and the mispronunciation “on-o-muh-NOH-pee-uh.” Since English spelling can be inconsistent and not always intuitive, people may unintentionally spell the word as “onomonopia” based on how they hear and pronounce the word.

Correct spelling


Incorrect spelling


Onomatopoeia in academic writing

In general, onomatopoeias are not commonly used in academic writing for several reasons.

Academic writing aims to be formal, objective, and precise. Onomatopoeias are often subjective and can be open to interpretation. They may not convey information with the clarity and precision required in academic essays. Typically, academic writing deals with complex ideas, theories, data analysis, and research findings.

Moreover, they are more commonly associated with descriptive or narrative writing, where sensory detail and vivid imagery are prioritized over factual information. They also may be perceived as too informal or colloquial for academic contexts, like in a research paper, where a more professional and authoritative tone is expected.

Finally, they can be ambiguous or culturally specific, leading to potential misunderstandings or confusion among readers. Academic writing strives for clarity and objectivity, and the use of them may hinder these goals.

However, there may be exceptions to this general rule, particularly in disciplines where descriptive language and sensory detail are integral to the research topic.


Literary studies:

In an analysis of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” an academic paper might discuss the use of onomatopoeias like “drip,” “drop,” and “plop” to convey the desolate and melancholic atmosphere of the poem’s setting.


In a study on cross-linguistic onomatopoeias, an academic paper might explore how different languages represent animal sounds. For instance, while English uses “moo” to represent the sound of a cow, Japanese uses “moo moo” (モーモー) and French uses “meuh.”

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Onomatopoeias are used in language to vividly depict a wide range of sounds associated with various aspects of life. Here’s how they are commonly used. We also included examples of onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeias play a fascinating role in capturing the vibrant sounds of the animal kingdom. They are frequently used to represent the animal sounds. These linguistic devices provide a direct connection between language and natural sounds, allowing us to vividly describe and understand the unique sounds produced by animals. They imitate natural sounds that are shaped by the human language. This figure of speech enables us to replicate and appreciate the rich tapestry of animal sounds.

By mimicking these natural sounds, onomatopoeias help us communicate about animals more effectively, fostering a deeper connection to the natural world and its diverse inhabitants. The following examples are only applicable to the English language. Other languages use different sounds for the same animals.


  • “Woof” for the sound of a dog barking
  • “Meow” for the sound of a cat
  • “Moo” for the distinct sound of a cow
  • “Oink” for the sound of a pig

In the realm of human sounds and actions, onomatopoeias capture the vast array of noises and movements that define our everyday experiences. Through language, we can add depth to our stories, poetry, and conversations, reflecting the human experience.


  • “Giggle” for a light, playful laugh
  • “Sigh” for the sound of a deep breath expressing relief or frustration
  • “Chatter” for rapid, continuous conversation
  • “Clap” for the sound of hands coming together

Besides animal sounds, onomatopoeias can also describe natural sounds or sounds that are produced by inanimate objects. The following are distinct sounds one stumbles upon in nature.


  • “Splash” for the sound of ripples following or water hitting a surface
  • “Crack” for the sound of thunder or breaking wood
  • “Rustle” for the sound of leaves or paper moving in the wind
  • “Scratch” for the sound of friction on surfaces like skin or wood

In the world of comics, onomatopoeias serve as dynamic tools for conveying action, intensity, and atmosphere. These sound effects, represented by onomatopoeic words, add a layer of immediacy and excitement to the visual storytelling experience. From the “BAM!” of a superhero’s punch to the “POW!” of an explosion, using them in comics brings the action to life on the page, enhancing the reader’s engagement and immersion in the narrative.


  • “Thwip” is the iconic sound associated with Spider-Man’s web-shooting action
  • “Pow” depicts a sudden impact or explosive sound, such as during a fight scene
  • “Boom” represents a loud sound, often the distinct sound of explosions
  • “Zap” portrays the sound of energy-based attacks or futuristic weaponry firing


The classification of onomatopoeias into three types provides a framework for understanding the different ways in which these words function within language. Here’s an explanation of each type.

Onomatopoeias that name sounds

These are words that directly imitate or represent the sounds they describe. They closely mimic the actual auditory experience and are often used to vividly portray noises.


  • “Moan” for a low, prolonged sound typically made by a person expressing pain, discomfort, or sorrow
  • “Whir” for a continuous, buzzing or humming sound, often produced by machinery, engines, or spinning objects
  • “Thud” for a dull, heavy sound, often produced by something falling or hitting a surface with a solid impact

Onomatopoeias that name things connected with sounds

These describe objects, actions, or phenomena that are closely associated with specific sounds. While they may not directly mimic the actual sound itself, they evoke the concept of the sound through their usage.


  • “Siren” for a device that emits a loud, wailing sound to alert or warn
  • “Whistle” for a small, cylindrical object used to produce a high-pitched, whistling sound
  • “Drum” for a percussion instrument that creates rhythmic sounds by being struck

Onomatopoeias that mimic something else physical

These imitate or evoke a physical sensation or action that is associated with a sound, rather than directly representing the sound itself. They create a sense of movement, texture, or physicality in language.


  • “Smooth” describes a surface or texture that is even, flat, and free from roughness or irregularities. It suggests a sense of sleekness, softness, or uniformity.
  • “Craggy” describes a surface or landscape that is rugged, uneven, and characterized by sharp or jagged projections or features, such as cliffs, rocks, or mountains.

The sound of the word “smooth” itself conveys a sense of fluidity and consistency. The prolonged “oo” creates a continuous sound followed by the soft “th” sound, creating a flowing auditory experience that mirrors the idea of smoothness in texture. Additionally, the word smoothly rolls off the tongue without any abrupt or jagged interruptions, further enhancing its mimetic quality.

The word “craggy” mimics the physical appearance and sensation of unevenness and roughness. The hard, guttural “cr” sound at the beginning of the word evokes the idea of hardness and solidity, reminiscent of the hard surfaces found in landscapes. The abrupt transition from the hard “cr” to the soft “aggy” mirrors the sharp contrast between the rough peaks and the softer valleys of craggy terrain.

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Other languages

Onomatopoeias are prevalent across various languages, each offering unique expressions that capture symbolic sounds and enrich communication. In Japanese, the symbolism in sounds is particularly prominent in their language, playing a crucial role in everyday speech and cultural expression.

Examples: Japanese

  • “ぐちゃぐちゃ” (gucha gucha) for messy or tangled
  • “ピカピカ” (pika pika) for sparkling or shining

In Arabic, this figure of speech plays a significant role in everyday speech, poetry, and literature, representing the significance of symbolism in sounds in their language.

Examples: Arabic

  • “دقّ” (daqqa) for knocking
  • “خرّ” (kharr) for snoring
  • “شحشح” (shahshah) for whispering

In Hebrew, onomatopoeias are utilized to capture symbolic sounds and actions vividly, adding depth and sensory detail to communication. These expressive linguistic tools play a significant role in everyday speech, literature, and cultural expressions.

Examples: Hebrew

  • “פּוּפּוּ” (pupu) for a pop
  • “שִיעוּק” (shi’uk) for a squeak

Effect in literature

Onomatopoeias play a significant role in literature by adding vividness, imagery, and sensory detail to writing. They allow authors to recreate sounds and experiences within the minds of readers, enhancing the immersive quality of the narrative. Here’s how they are used in literature, along with examples.

Creating atmosphere

Onomatopoeias are often used to set the mood or atmosphere of a scene by evoking specific sounds associated with the setting.


  • The waves crashed rhythmically against the shore, creating a soothing lullaby.

The word “crash” evokes the sound of waves hitting the shore, creating an auditory image of the ocean setting.

Enhancing action and movement

Onomatopoeias are used to describe actions or movements with greater vividness and immediacy. They bring scenes to life by replicating the sounds of motion.


  • The arrow whizzed through the air, narrowly missing its target.

The word “whizzed” imitates the sound of the arrow flying through the air, adding excitement and urgency to the action.

Conveying emotion and mood

Onomatopoeias can convey emotions or moods by mimicking the sounds associated with them. They provide insight into characters’ feelings and reactions.


  • She let out a joyful giggle as she spun in circles.

The word “giggle” suggests the sound of laughter, conveying the character’s happiness.

Creating soundscapes

Onomatopoeias help create rich auditory landscapes within the narrative, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the sounds of the story world.


  • The forest echoed with the chirping of birds and the rustle of leaves in the breeze.

The words “chirping” and “rustle” evoke the sounds of nature, painting a vivid picture of the forest environment.

Establishing tone and style

Onomatopoeias contribute to the overall tone and style of a literary work by adding texture and rhythm to the language. They help create a unique voice for the author and set the tone for the narrative.


  • The old house creaked and groaned in the wind, protesting against the passage of time.

The words “creaked” and “groaned” create a sense of age and decrepitude, establishing a haunting tone for the story.


An onomatopoeia is a linguistic device where a word imitates or resembles the sound it represents.

Onomatopoeia is when words sound like the noises they describe.

The three types of onomatopoeias are:

  1. Onomatopoeias that name sounds
  2. Onomatopoeias that name things connected with sounds
  3. Onomatopoeias that mimic something else physical

No, “cry” is not an onomatopoeia.