Onomatopoeia is a word that has left many a spelling bee contestant letting out onstage the kind of moan generally reserved for hearing that a politician is going to interrupt normal programming to give a speech. Onomatopoeia is a word defined as an expression that sounds like what it is describing. Boom! Buzz! Ka-Pow! These are all examples of onomatopoeia.
“Onomatopoeia” is also the title and subject of a well-known essay by William Safire in which the gifted conservative writer took time out from writing speeches for Richard Nixon to pore over the history of this unusual linguistic device. And lastly, onomatopoeia is a brilliantly confounding example of exactly why English probably shouldn’t ever be the official language of any country. After all, where else but in English could you derive from the combination of letters “poeia” a pronunciation that sounds like an Italian stereotype speaking of his necessity to see a man about a horse.
As Safire dives into the origins of one of the average spelling bee contestant’s worst nightmare (right ahead of “Renaissance” which, unbelievably, the most idiotic middle school teacher I’ve ever known chose as the first word to give my son in a sixth grade spelling bee!!), he arrives at the shores of Henry Peacham during the Year of our Lord, 1577. Peacham was the author of a well-known grammar bible and it is from this source that we arrive as much of what is known about the oddities surrounding the word onomatopoeia. Digging into the ground that lay beneath the foundation established by Peacham, William Safire arrives at a genuinely astonishing idea. There is the suggestion, and it makes entirely perfect sense (to a point) that the origin of all human language can be traced to the concept of onomatopoeia. After all, what better way to arrive at a name for something that by trying to match the sound it makes. There is an enormous problem in taking this tack however.
For instance, does a dog make a sound like “bow-wow”, “ruff” or “ruhhrr-rhhrr-grrrr?”
Onomatopoeia does not translate with precision across the cultural divide. In America there exists the general acceptance that the sound made by a rooster announcing it is time to get up early in the morning can be identified by the familiar phrase “cock-a-doodle-doo.” Try convincing people in other countries of that fact, however .
Another equally fascinating element that William Safire examines is the idea of the onomatomaniac. Now there is a word that would send most spelling bee contestants running to the full complement of their time-wasting tools as they grappled with the uniqueness. Or perhaps not; these little dudes and dudettes are smarter at 12 years old than certain of those politicians who interrupt your favorite television programming and would probably find the word onomatomaniac ridiculously easy to work out. An onomatomaniac is, according to Safire, a person who is in totally thrall with words. It does seem an odd choice of a word to describe someone who is a lover of words when you mull it over. How does one develop the psychological breakdown to become an onomatomaniac? Interestingly, no further insight is provided on that score.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the linguistic component of onomatopoeia is the fact that it can describe sounds that, at least until someone actually comes along who is capable of authentically creating the noise, can exist only in the imagination. For instance, until an actual rocket that could carry human beings into space was actually invented, the explosive sound that might be produced was purely onomatopoeiatic. Safire goes even further, using the example of the ray gun. Even those who had never been to a Saturday matinee showing a Flash Gordon serial knew what to expect the first time they heard the sound that was produced by the ray gun because they had already seen the sound written in comic books.
Of course, none of us really know what a ray gun sounds like because no one has invented one for real yet. (At least as far as we know, anyway.) But one almost surely would not be surprised if the maker of the first ray gun manipulates the sound technology involved to synthesize it so that it does sound exactly like what we expect it to sound like. Because another crazy aspect of onomatopoeia is that it can most certainly works in reverse; now more than ever. The ability to manufacture and synthesize sounds to meet the expectations created through fiction is no longer merely possible, but our way of life. The ray gun will most definitely one day be invented and if the science behind it is does mandate that any sound at all be made, you can most definitely rest assured the man-made addition of sound will be one that replicates what we’ve come to expect science to sound like.