From the day I learned of its existence, sometime during grade school, onomatopoeia was both one of my favourite words and described my favourite category of words. (I had a penchant for very large words from a young age—another favourite was antidisestablishmentarianism, which I discovered in grade 2 during a contest I instigated with another brainy nerd to find the longest words we could. This was pre-internet, of course, though not pre-television, recess or toys.)
Words that sound like the things they name: crash, sizzle, slash, flutter, fizzle, whoosh, whizz, burp, bleep, jiggle, croak, tick tock, vroom vroom vroom! Onomatopoeias are always delightful and mostly fun to say. The supreme power of the onomatopoeia was harnessed early by comic book creators with their pages full of Bam! Boom! Wham! Bif! Zing! Kersplash! Splat! Notoriously short on words, for the comic-book artist, all it takes is one well-drawn and colourful Kapow! to describe a thousand punches. Perhaps to mark their indebtedness to the word, in 2002 DC Comics introduced a villain called Onomatopoeia, a serial killer who speaks only in sounds. (Is his comeback “oh, snap!”? It probably should be.) While the question of whether or not Onomatopoeia is a metahuman remains open, he’s certainly a metaquestion for the genre: if one controls the BLAM!, does one control the comic?
Pop culture is full of onomatopoeia, from Snap! Crackle! And Pop!’s inauguration in the 1930s—Canadians will also know the Québécois slogan “Cric! Crac! Croc!” from the back of the cereal box (or the front, if you’re French-speaking) to Liz Lemon’s “blerg.” They are mnemonic—I will forever feel compelled to buy Alka Seltzer, Plop plop, fizz fizz!, even though I have no idea what it is supposed to do—and endearing, humanizing even the most creepy gnome-like cereal mascot. The perfect ad word, I suppose.
I love onomatopoeias (for so much more than their capacity to create catchphrases) and in some ways I don’t think that the category goes far enough. We should also have a name for words that are simply perfect at describing the things they describe, like the prickle of porcupines or romp of otters—surely there is nothing else that a group of otters should be called! I think we should have a word that calls attention to all of our near-perfect appellations: kerfuffle, snot, tremble, bottle, fern, sheet, mustard (the last said like the Mad Hatter, of course).
Let’s not stop! Maybe we should keep working at those words that don’t pass muster: really, you’re just going to call it a “car,”? Just think, we could renovate English and all Anglophones could enjoy every word they speak or write and not just the blots, hugs and jiggles? We could become more like the Finnish with their staccato overdose of “k”s and “i”s, or like the Germans we can simply push all of our words together into huge compounds so that each word is like a tongue-twister. It would be so much fun… Or maybe it would usher in the verbal apocalypse. We’d all stop communicating sensibly and start babbling delightful but meaningless phrases. We’d turn into a cacophony of Onomatopoeias, who after all threatens Batman and the citizens of Metropolis not with mesmerizing sounds but with semi-automatic weaponry. Or are we already there? I’d better google it… then tweet it, post it on my facebook, add it to my tumblr…