by Gillian Clarke
On-o-mat-o-poe-ia! One-tom-a-to-pizz-a! I-am-gonna-pay-ya! I love the word, and can’t resist playing with it. It comes from Greek and means ‘word-making’. Onomatopoeia imitates the sound of the thing it describes, and because it uses musical effects it’s perfect for poetry. Children make new words using it: quack-quack; bow-wow; moo cow; brmm-brmm, and nee-naw is an excellent word for a fire engine or police car.
Widely used in primitive language, it’s at the root of many English words, words like wind, owl, cuckoo, sizzle. A snake hisses and slithers, like the sound of its voice and its movement through grass. The most obvious examples are words like ‘pop’, ‘bang’, ‘hush!’ In parts of south-west Britain plimsolls, or pumps, are known as daps, which is the sound they make as you run. ‘Get your daps on!’ means ‘Hurry!’ A poet’s use of onomatopoeia is occasional, even rare. It is not easy to find examples in the GCSE anthology. It would be easier to find examples in comics!
I (Gillian Clarke) have found a few examples in my poem The Field-Mouse, where the sound of a word expresses its meaning. Examples are words like ‘hums’, ‘drum’, and the ‘stammering’ of gunfire.
In Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist the sounds made by frogs in muddy places are heard in ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber’, ‘croaking’, ‘slap’, ‘pop’.
Carol Ann Duffy, in her poem We Remember Your Childhood Well, uses ‘Boom. Boom. Boom.’ for the sound of voices, and in Stealing, the word-sound ‘Aah’ for breathing on a mirror.
Simon Armitage uses ‘scuffed’ for the marks made by children treading on his yellow jacket in Homecoming, and you can hear the scuff-scuffle of feet in the word.