Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Posts Tagged ‘onomatopoeic

The sound of serendipity

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Horace Walpole: word coiner and frill fan

Where was I? Oh, yes: serendipity.

The Wordwatch Towers inbox has recently been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of an email asking me to explain the origins of this lovely word (which means making a happy and unexpected accidental discovery).

The butler (at a loose end since my reader Gladys went to Devon to help celebrate her sister’s 86th) immediately dusted down Oxford Dictionaries online and discovered a rather lovely snippet.

walpole horace gothic B20114 47The word was coined in 1754 by the English writer and politician Horace Walpole, well known in his day as the author of The Castle of Otranto, widely regarded as the first Gothic novel.

Walpole used the word serendipity in his correspondence, having based it on The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian fairy tale (Horace called it ‘silly’) in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. You can read more about this on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

Hmm …

Here comes the hmm … as you know, I am not one to nitpick (ahem), but there’s a first time for everything. The Oxford Dictionaries blog post referred to above describes the word serendipity as ‘wonderfully onomatopoeic’. Is it?

Doesn’t ‘onomatopoeic’ mean words like ‘buzz’ and ‘bang’ and hiss’ – words based on the sound they describe? Does serendipity sound like the – er – sound of happy chance discoveries? I don’t fink so.


Written by Wordwatch

21/07/2016 at 9:50 pm

It’s sort of zoom, zip, hiccup, drip

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Making traditional beehives called skeps. Phot...

Bees buzz.

‘Buzz’ is an example of onomatopoeia. This means the word is based on the sound it describes. Other examples include ‘cuckoo’, ‘sizzle’, ‘whoosh’ and ‘hiss’.

Also bee-related, try saying aloud: ‘the murmur of innumerable bees’. You’ll find it’s onomatopoeic: the sound of the words is suggestive of the sound of innumerable bees.

And here are the lyrics of the song, Onomatopoeia, written by the American musician and record producer Todd Rundgren:

Onomatopoeia every time I see ya
My senses tell me hubba
And I just can’t disagree
I get a feeling in my heart that I can’t describe
It’s sort of lub, dub, lub, dub
A sound in my head that I can’t describe
It’s sort of zoom, zip, hiccup, drip
Ding, dong, crunch, crack, bark, meow, whinny, quack

Onomatopoeia in proximity ya
Rearrange my brain in a strange cacophony
I get a feeling somewhere that I can’t describe
It’s sort of uh, uh, uh, uh
A sound in my head that I can’t describe
It’s sort of whack, whir, wheeze, whine
Sputter, splat, squirt, scrape
Clink, clank, clunk, clatter
Crash, bang, beep, buzz
Ring, rip, roar, retch
Twang, toot, tinkle, thud
Pop, plop, plunk, pow
Snort, snuk, sniff, smack
Screech, splash, squish, squeek
Jingle, rattle, squeel, boing
Honk, hoot, hack, belch

See Oxford Dictionaries’ definition and explanation of the word’s derivation.

You can hear how onomatopoeia and onomatopoeic are pronounced (in an American accent) on the Merriam-Webster site.

Find out about oxymorons

Written by Wordwatch

27/07/2010 at 7:24 am

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