Column: Creepy sounds of onomatopoeia


Most people know what onomatopoeia is, but I’d bet most of them couldn’t spell it! Just ask me.

Onomatopoeia, of course, is the naming of a thing based on the sound it makes. I can’t think of a better season to discuss onomatopoeia than Halloween. The word onomatopoeia is a Greek word meaning “the making of a name or word.”

We’re all wary of things that go “bump” in the night. Is “bump” an example of onomatopoeia? The answer is: probably. Bump first shows up in the late 16th century as an English word meaning “a protuberance caused by a blow.” We can pretty safely assume that “bump” came from the dull noise made that causes the bump itself. Obviously, there’s the noun “bump” and the verb “bump” as well. Bump’s cousins include thump and thud.

What about the sound a nice bonfire makes? The fire crackles, as we say. The word crackle is another good example of onomatopoeia in action. The word “crack” showed up first, and it’s yet another great instance of a word formed by the sound it makes. If you give out the “Krackel” candy, you’re likely to be one of the more popular houses on the block.

You’ll want to be careful about mysterious creatures rustling in your bushes. The word “rustle” means what it sounds like: to emit soft, rapid sounds when in motion. While the word gains another definition in the 1800s (to steal, as with cattle), the soft, swooshy noise something makes while lurking in the bushes is the most popular usage.

Does anyone have creaky basement stairs? I do, and they come complete with complimentary cobwebs. Creak shows up in the early 14th century, meaning “to utter a harsh cry.” By the end of the 16th century, the definition evolved to what we think of today — the sound of rusty hinges and old basement stairs. “Croak” is creak’s word cousin, and they both owe their heritage to “crack.”

Around Halloween, I like to avoid anything that “hisses.” Whether it’s a black cat or a slithering snake, I’m content to stay far away from hissing creatures. The word shows up in English in the late 14th century and has comparable words in the Danish and German languages.

Keep your ears open this season for spooky things that make creepy noises from which we get imitative, soundalike words. After all, onomatopoeia could be lurking around every corner.