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What Does Onomatopoeia Mean?

One of the trickiest words you are likely to come across when learning English is onomatopoeia. It’s hard to spell and hard to pronounce… but it has a very simple meaning!

First of all, let’s get the pronunciation right: on-oh-mat-oh-pee-ah.

Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like the thing it describes.

For example, in English we say that a cat meows. This is a verb, describing the action of a cat making a noise. It is also the sound that the cat actually makes: meaow!

A lot of verbs in English are onomatopoeic. They describe an action, but also the sound that the action makes.

Here are some examples:


For example: I bang the drums.

This describes the action of hitting the drum, which makes the sound “bang!”


For example: the bee buzzed past my face.

It’s what the bee does, but it’s also what you hear when the bee goes past.


For example: The rain was pattering on the roof.  

As soon as you hear the word, you can imagine the sound of the rain falling onto the roof: patter-patter-patter-patter. This is also why many poets and writers like to use onomatopoeic words in their work. It help the reader to imagine the scene they are telling you about.


For example: I was so thirsty that I gulped down the whole bottle of water in one go.

To gulp means to swallow a lot of something in one go. It’s what your throat does, but also the noise it makes. Usually people use it to talk about swallowing a lot of water very quickly, but can also “gulp for air” – for example, if someone has been saved from drowning and is trying to breathe in as much air as quickly as possible.


For example: I can’t stop hiccupping! It’s so embarrassing!

To “have the hiccups” is the funny sound you make when you accidentally swallow too much air, or when you eat or drink something too quickly, and your diaphragm muscle (at the bottom of your stomach) clenches sharply so that air goes through your throat quickly. It’s called hiccupping because your make a high-pitched sound like this: hic-cup!


For example: Can you zip up the back of my dress, please?

Like all onomatopoeic words, zip is a verb and a noun. Zip is unusual, though, because it refers to the object that makes the noise. For most onomatopoeic words, the noun refers to the sound that is made.

This is a zip: [insert photo: zip]

When you zip something up (“do up a zip”) it makes a zzzip! sound. The physical thing you touch is also called a zip – unless you are in the US, where it is called a zipper.    


For example: The rabbit sniffed the carrot

To sniff means to take in air through your nose loudly enough that it makes a sound. It’s something you do on purpose, rather than just breathing through your nose normally. For example, you might sniff something to see how it smells, or because you have a cold and your nose is blocked. If you do it now, you’ll notice that it makes a short, soft sound like this: sniff!

The great thing about onomatopoeic words is that they help you to understand the meaning of a sentence, even if you haven’t seen a word before. Next time you come across a word you don’t know, look at the context it is used in and think about how the word sounds. This might give you some useful clues.

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