Monday, December 20, 2010

Words That Sound Like What They Mean

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I love onomatopoeia. Not everyone does, so it's something I have to use with care. But just because I can't use "thwack" as often as I'd like, there are plenty of words that sound like what they mean that aren't onomatopoeia. The sound of the word evokes its meaning.

There's a great exchange in The West Wing that illustrates this. (I tried to find a video clip, but alas, no luck).
Ivanovich : Sam, it is freezing too cold in Rheykjavik, it is freezing too cold in Helsinki, it is freezing too cold in Staad, why must every American president bound out of an automobile like he's at a yacht club, while in... comparison,  while in comparison, our leader looks like... I don't even know what word is.

Sam : Frumpy?
Ivanovich : I don't know what 'frumpy' is, but onomatopoeticly, sounds right. 
Frumpy sounds like what it is. You don't have to know its definition to get a good idea of its meaning. A quick trip to the thesaurus got me these other words that could have been used instead:  

badly dressed, baggy, blowsy, dingy, drab, dull, homely, old-fashioned, outdated, plain, poorly dressed, shabby, sloppy, stodgy, unfashionable, unkempt, unstylish 

None of them convey what frumpy does, because the sound of the word is so perfectly aligned with what it means.

There are a lot of great words out there that are just as descriptive and can add richness to your writing. It's one of the reasons I love skitter. And clatter. And oozed. They bring a soundtrack to the scene that can make it come alive in a reader's mind -- and ears. 

Words have baggage. They have associations with things and when we read them, we also think about all those associations. This is why a single word can perfectly describe something, and why the wrong word can really make a sentence awkward. 
The syrup oozed out of the bottle.
Sounds gross doesn't it? But ooze means to move slowly or gradually. Syrup does ooze. It's just been associated with slime and muck so much we don't think of it as anything "clean." Even the cliche, "he oozed charm" has a negative connotation.

There's a reason writing folks extol the virtues of using just the right word. Because there's a big perception difference between, sweat oozed across her forehead and sweat glistened on her brow, even though they mean the same thing. Her forehead was sweaty. 

Words bring more to the page than just a definition. The wrong ones can be comical. The right ones -- brilliance.

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Good post! I know exactly what you mean. That's why I love writing in English. There are so many ways to say something, that a single word could potentially give the EXACT description. Unfortunately. People get it wrong too. I can see what they wanted to convey, but they failed since they never bothered to check.

    The other day, I read a book with a funny scene. In the course of this scene's dialogue, on character says something strange and smiles ominously.

    Problem: what the person said didn't actually lead anywhere. Words or gestures are only ominous if they convey the fact that something will happen.

    Preferably, ominous smiles should give the other characters that the smiles are turned on an "oh no" kind of feeling.

    Or maybe I'm wrong. But that's the exact feeling the word ominous conveys to me.


  2. Great post--I think this is one of the reason precision with words is key--they are so powerful, the difference between pulling the reader in vs. leaving her flat or scratching her head. Oh, and I unrepentantly used "thwacked" as a verb in my last ms. Couldn't help myself :)

  3. Great post! I totally agree-- we need more words like "onomatopoeic" to describe those words that have that much sensory context.

    And I love that episode of The West Wing.

  4. "Oozing" would fit syrup for a narrator who hated it–I wanna steal that, now. ^_^

  5. My favourite word that just sounds great is 'ramshackle'. I have to stop myself from using it all the time :)

  6. I really agree with Misha's comment on the word ominous, that it has to lead somewhere.

    Ostentatious is a delicious word that I think sounds exactly like what it is. Only trouble is, now I'm tempted to use it all the time. :)

  7. "Tintinnabulation" Poe taught me this word in "The Bells," and I've loved it ever since.

  8. Well said! I think another great one is sneer, because when someone sneers, they make a nasally sound that fits with the long "ee" sound of sneer itself. Not really onomatopoeia but it still feels like it's meaning.

    Kind of an odd example, I was writing a story the other day and described a young girl looking for "the scratched glint of loose change" on a sidewalk. This got some comments from my family, because technically they said, pennies don't glint; light does. Which is true. But I chose glint because it suggests light, and the sound of the word suggests (at least to me) sharp edges, things scraped and torn, hard refraction. This is how a coin looks when it's been scuttling around the street a while. Light bounces off it in weird ways, and the sound of the word glint captured that. (Or at least I felt it did.)

    Love your example of sweat oozing. I think too often I see the wrong word used and it just throws me off. Great post :)


  9. Wonderful post. I absolutely LOVE the words skitter, clatter, and ooze! I have to be careful not to use skitter too much, in fact. I enjoy the diff connotations and subtleties of each word, which you can tweak to fit the scene or person. Exciting stuff! (Yes, I'm a word nerd.)

  10. I love the word frumpy. :) It makes me laugh for some reason.

  11. Great post! I'm a fan of onomatopoeia, though I agree that it's most effective when used at the right moment.

  12. Can you come teach this to my ESL class? It's interesting that for some reason, the sound of a word in your 2nd language doesn't mean much. To us, frumpy sounds exactly like what it means, but ESL students usually can't pick up on that. I wonder what it is about our language (and our knowledge of it) that gives us the ability to just know what a word means based on how it "feels" when we say it. Fascinating.

  13. "Snick," "snicker," "whuffle," and "whirred" are words that catch my attention. Words like these make pictures just as effectively as onomatopoeia. Thanks for this post.

  14. Great post with the added bonus of a West Wing reference. Ian McShane is wonderful in that part of the Russian.

  15. Oh man, best post ever. Totally agree.

    And props for TWW illustrative example.

    I do, however, have a soft spot for the word "plain". I think it's because it makes me think of JANE EYRE, which evokes an entire mood and story and mystery all it's own.

    Of course, I realize I'm just projecting, but "plain" has a certain bit of magic that I just can't shake. ;)

  16. Misha: That's interesting about writing in English. I don't think you're wrong about ominous. That's a clear foreshadowing word if I ever heard one. Readers pick up on that.

    Sarah: I love verbing sound words. The right word really does make all the difference.

    Su: Thanks! I'm such a huge West Wing fan.

    Carradee: Feel free! And yep, you're right. Context plays a role as well.

    Girl Friday: That's a great word. And a stand-out word so you would have to be careful with it.

    Chicory: Ditto! And you have to make sure you give it to someone who'd actually use a word like that. :)

    Marilynn: That's a word and a half, but it does sound musical.

    Creative A: Sneer is great and I always have to do a check on that one in my manuscript. Another easy one to overuse. I like your glint line myself. I think a little leeway in writing is a good thing

    Carol: Nothing wrong with word nerds :) They make good writers!

    Amber: It does have that feel, doesn't it?

    Ghenet: I have a writer buddy that hates it, so she keeps me honest when I overuse them.

    Beth: That's really cool. I never would have expected that.

    Taqiyyah: I love snick, especially used when a door snicks open. And I must use whuffle now somewhere, LOL.

    Elspeth: Thanks! He really was good there.

    Shayda: Thanks! Plain is a good word to, and carries the same sound feel, just in another way.

  17. how about discombobulated?

  18. Great word :) It really does sound like it's all out of whack.

  19. Can anyone define the word Wampus just from the way it sounds?

    1. Casually destructive is what comes to my mind. I get the image of a newly bathed dog going wild in a house and knocking stuff over :)

  20. According to the Urban dictionary, the full term is: kattywampus
    Knocked askew. Alternate spelling of cattywampus, alternate form of Kittywampus. Seems to be a regional thing.
    "I hit my head and started walking all kattywampus."

  21. The word is ideophone- words that sound like what they mean.

    1. Ideophones evoke sounds and senses. They make you think of a sense. Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like the sound it represents (such as, swish). Similar types of words, but different meanings.