Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


+ Phonestheme

Oxford English Dictionary

1.a. The formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing or action being named; the formation of words imitative of sounds.

"Early words may have formed by onomatopoeia, as in bow-wow for dog, cuckoo for the familiar bird and whoosh for a puff of wind." (Scientific American 1991.

2. The use of echoic or suggestive language, esp. onomatopes, for rhetorical effect. Occas. in Music: the use of imitative or echoic instrumentation, rhythms, etc

onomatope: A word formed by onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeic joke

Who's there?
Boo who?
Don't cry, I was only joking

Onomatopoeia in classic poetry:

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Bells"

Gwendolyn Brooks, "Cynthia in the Snow"

In the last lines of Sir Alfred Tennyson's poem 'Come Down, O Maid', m and n sounds produce an atmosphere of murmuring insects:

... the moan of doves in immemorial elms,

And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Also Tennyson's Morte D’Arthur:

I heard the ripple washing in the reeds

And the wild water lapping on the crag.


Examples of onomatopoeic words:

achoo, ahem

beep, boom

chirp, click, clink, cock-a-doodle-doo

ding, drip


fizz, flicker, flutter

giggle, growl, gurgle

harrumph, hiccup, hiss, honk, hum



meow, moo, mumble, murmur

oink, ouch, ow

ping, plop, plunk, poof, pop, purr


rattle, roar, rumble, rustle

screech, sizzle, slap, slurp, sniff, snip, snort

thud, thump, ticktock, tinkle, twang, tweet



whack, wham, whisper, woof


zap, zip, zoom

(examples adapted from

compare Phonestheme: A phoneme or group of phonemes having recognizable semantic associations, as a result of appearing in a number of words of similar meaning (Oxford English Dictionary)

For example, in words like glimmer, glitter, and glisten, the initial gl- phonestheme is associated with vision or light. (


Phoneme 1b. A unit of sound in a language that cannot be analysed into smaller linear units and that can distinguish one word from another (e.g. /p/ and /b/ in English pat, bat).



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