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Let's Look At The Language

May 7, 2011

Onomatopoeic power of wheatgrass souffle

“The formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named” is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of “onomatopoeia” (Ah-Nuh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh). An odd word, onomatopoeia, and one that’s guaranteed to get a giggle out of grade-schoolers, who immediately recognize it as a word that sounds less like a serious term of grammar and more like a silly euphemism for something their teacher probably shouldn’t be saying out loud in the classroom.

Odd and silly sounding. Not bad characteristics for a word that relates to the formation of other words based on associated sounds.The best way to appreciate “onomatopoeia” is to consider a few onomatopoeic words. Such a word does not have a typical linguistic origin, but rather it’s a word that was invented to imitate the sound most relevant to its definition.

“Sizzle” (think bacon in a hot skillet), “chirp” (think songbirds in the morning), and “belch” (think Uncle Billy on Thanksgiving) are good examples of the onomatopoeic form.

Stacked up against all the other words in our language, onomatopoeic words are quite an elite set. That’s not to say there aren’t enough of them to use as recreational fodder, as I discovered the other day while playing an off-the-cuff word game that more or less created itself as my daughter and I were driving around doing errands.

The name of the game, as we have christened it, is “I-don’t-wanna-pee-a.” Purposefully sounding very much like “onomatopoeia,” it also relates to forgoing that second cup of coffee on the road if you’d rather play a word game than use a public bathroom. (You didn’t think the study of language is all grace and gentility, did you?)

The rules are simple. The first person thinks of an onomatopoeic word that begins with A, and puts it in a sentence. The next person thinks of an onomatopoeic word that begins with B and puts it in a sentence that continues the storyline begun by the first person. The game continues thus, until the players have gone through the alphabet, so the concluding sentence of “the story” includes an onomatopoeic word that begins with Z. (We allowed the skipping of the letter X.)

All in all, I’d say it was an entertaining exercise, and one I would recommend to any of you wordies who are always game when it comes to word games.

Although I cannot precisely re-create our first go at “I-don’t-wanna-pee-a,” our game story went something like this:

Ahem, are you listening? Sorry, I was distracted by the buzz of these bees. That’s nothing compared to the cackle of those crows. Oh, the timer dinged; I have to check on my wheatgrass soufflé. Eww, that sounds disgusting. You could be right; my cooking experiments often fizzle out. Well, I’m not going to taste it, unless you want me to gag. I’ve been told it can cure the hiccups. I’d rather have hiccups than eat that — ick! Stop your jabber; I never said you had to eat it. All right; let me go see who’s knocking at the door. Well, la-di-da, I think it’s Mrs. Snootface. Don’t be catty — Meow! Fine, let the nattering old bag in. Hello, dahlings, I’ve just come from a lovely oompah concert in the park. Phew, I’m glad I missed that one. Oh, dahling, I should love a quaff of something refreshing. I’ll rustle something up in the kitchen. Dahling, must your dog slobber so? Would you rather he just thwack you with his big tail? Ugh — what is that ghastly green slime? Just something I put in the blender for you (vroom!); a few minutes ago it was wheatgrass soufflé. Oh, dahling, one whiff of that could kill someone! In that case — yum, yum, yum — try some. Who knew Mrs. Snootface could zoom out of here so fast?

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford’s American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press.Have a question or comment relating to the English language?  E-mail languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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