Snap! Crackle! Pop! Some words sound like what they mean. The Greeks had a word for it, onomatopoeia. Roughly translated, this witty word means: "I say a sound."
The most common kind of onomatopoeia echoes familiar human noises: belch, burp, grunt, haha.
Capturing animal sounds has been a challenge for every language since a snake hissed at Eve. In The Frogs, Aristophanes famously decided that his chorus of croaking frogs sound like this: Brek-ke-kex, koax-koax.
Batman comic books imported sound effects from the movies: POW, WHACK, WHAM, BOINK, POP, SWISHHH.
Some onomatopoeia seems obvious to us. Surely everyone would get that. Truth is, you don’t know unless you play the words for people who speak a different language. Here are 21 examples that would probably perform well across international borders.
1. Screech. Parrots screech. Irate women screech. Unhappy machines and furniture screech. The word seems to carry all these different associations with it.
2. Tick-tock is almost universal for the sound that a clock makes.
3. Twang. The music of strings twanging. Some accents twang. The word suggests vibrato better than vibrato does.
4. Murmur. This is a pure Latin word, two identical soft syllables that suggest an endless loop, sighing in the distance.
5. Moo. To a surprising degree, animals speak differently in every language. So don’t expect the French to know what bow-wow means or even purr. But cows, it turns out, do moo in much of the world.
6. Vroom. This word reportedly did not appear until 1965. Not only that, it was invented by children as they played with their toy cars: vroom vroom. (Also: varoom.) It has now spread globally.
7. Gurgle. A modest word but can it be beat? Water gurgling in a drain. He gurgled his last insult and died.
8. Whizz. Bullets whizz by. That sounds right. Then there is whizz as in tinkle, another good O-word.
9. Slurp. From Dutch slurpen, related to German schlurfen. Not a huge surprise that in a culture that enjoys big steins of beer, you have lots of people slurping.
10. Hum. How else could you render the sound of, you know, humming? Perhaps you spell the word hummm.
11. Crunch. There is some genius in -unch. We love to crunch on munchies, and munch on crunchies.
12. Chattering, as of teeth. People talk foolishly, the chattering classes, suggesting silliness. But the suggestion of cold is what this word does best.
13. Kaboom. Boom is a good start. KABOOM is even better. One of many noisy words concocted by Batman comics.
14. Flutter. Flags flutter. You can hear the folds of canvas slapping together. Hearts flutter. You can hear them.
15. Click. High heels click on a marble floor. Clicking on a light switch. Something clicked, a lock or an idea.
16. Quack. Seems perfect for what ducks do. But take a global tour of duck noises and you'll hear rap rap (Danish); mak-mak (Albanian); prääk prääk (Estonian); coin coin (French); háp háp (Hungarian); bra bra (Icelandic); qua qua (Italian); and many others.
17. Splat. Merriam-Webster doesn’t bother to say this is onomatopoeia or "imitative." But splat and splatter are what soft bodies do when colliding with hard surfaces.
18. Clang. The closing of metal doors. The jangle of ornate jewelry. The bang of a gun. The -ang sound is strong and hangs in the air.
19. Hiccups. Few sounds are weirder; but this seems an excellent match.
20. Sneeze. Does not seem like a perfect match. But lots of sn- words connect to the nose: snout, snore, snarl, sniff, snot, snivel, sneer, snicker, snorkel, sneeze. So this may be the best that English can do with these difficult sounds.
21. Beep. Earliest known use in 1929. First, we had to have lots of cars, then telephone answering machines.
Each alphabet has its inner magic. Every language has its inner poet, striving to confect the perfect words.
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