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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Onomatopoeia December 24, Figures of Speech

Onomatopoeia, which oddly enough sounds nothing like what it means, is a word that imitates a sound.  We are familiar with onomatopoeia from the old Batman show with its "biff!" and "bam!" sound effects superimposed over the fight scenes and old Don Martin cartoons which rendered the sound of a steam roller inexorably squooshing someone as "squelllge."  Roy Blount Jr points out there's lots of unsuspected onomatopoetic qualities in words all around us.  He calls this "sonicky."  To give just one example, the word "asphyxiate" requires us to tighten our throats slightly as we pronounce it, simulating asphyxiation.
The catch with onomatopoeia is that even what we would consider fairly unambiguous sounds are capable of a wide variety of interpretations.  For example, in America cows moo, while in England, they low.  Moo and low are at least somewhat similar, and everyone around the world seems to agree that to make a bee sound, the letter "Z" must be employed.  But whereas in America, dogs say "Woof!  Woof!" or in extreme cases, "Bow-wow!"  (I have never once heard a dog go "bow-wow" but I have it on good authority, they do.), in France they seem to go "ouah, ouah!"  To be fair, I can imagine that "oauh, oauh," exclaimed with a certain level of bravura might sound effectively canine, but how are we to account for Russian where evidently they go, "gav gav."  I have never been to Russia, but it makes me want to go there, if for no other reason than to hear one of their dogs.

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