January 12: Onomatopoeia Day

On this date in 1966, the TV series “Batman” premiered.  The success of the series can be traced to its appeals to a broad audience.  For kids the show was a must-watch action-adventure, following the exploits of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo from the DC comic books.  For adults, the show was campy comedy.  Airing twice a week, Batman was wildly successful.  The show was also notable as one of the first to cash-in on merchandising.  Fans could buy a Batman lunch pail,  a Batman T-shirt, Batman trading cards, and even a Batman board game.

The show included a nod to the classics.  In Bruce Wayne’s private study, on a desk next to his red Batphone, sat a bust of William Shakespeare.  The bust was a vital prop, for beneath the hinged head of the Bard was a hidden button.  When Wayne pushed the button, a sliding bookcase opened revealing two Batpoles, giving Batman and Robin immediate access to the Batcave.

Batman ran for three seasons, and in each of its 120 episodes one plot element was inevitable:  Batman and Robin would confront one of their arch villains, along with his or her henchman, and engage in a climactic fistfight.   This is where the rhetoric device called onomatopoeia was employed for effect.  To remind viewers that these were comic book characters, each punch was punctuated by words superimposed in bright colors on the screen.  The words “POW!”, “BAM!”, and “ZONK!” entered pop culture (1).

Onomatopoeia is the use of words to imitate or suggest sound.  Imagery in language is largely about how words create vivid images, but we should not forget that we can also create imagery via sound effects like onomatopoeia.  For example, if we were to describe a car accident, we might say, “The two cars hit each other.”  This creates the image of two car coming together; however, notice how the image become more vivid when we add a verb that has a sound effect:  “The two cars smashed into each other.”

The results of a psychological study conducted in 1974, shows just how important vivid verbs can be. Subjects in the study were shown a film of a traffic accident and then were asked questions about the accident.  Some of the subjects were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”  Others were asked,  “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”  The subjects who were asked the second question (smashed), gave a higher estimated speed than the subjects who were asked the first question (hit).  

When the subjects were brought back to the lab a week later and shown the film of the accident again, they were asked if they had seen any broken glass.  In reality there was no broken glass in the film, but several of the subjects reported seeing it.  Of those who were asked a week earlier how fast the cars were going when they hit each other, 14 percent said they saw glass; of those who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other, 32 percent said they saw glass (2).

This experiment not only shows the fallibility of human memory and perception, it also shows how the right word, especially the right verb, can create a powerful impression on a reader.  That impression can be in the form of a vivid image, but it can also be auditory, as in “smashed” or “crashed.”  The lesson here is to select your verbs carefully, for their sense, but also for their sound — for their visual effect but also for their volume effect.

The following are some examples of volume verbs:

babble, beat, bellow, blare, blast, bubble, buzz, chatter, chug, cackle, click, crackle, crash, clang, cry, crush, drip, dribble, explode, fizzle, groan, growl, gurgle, hiss, hum, jingle, knock, moan, murmur, plink, plop, pop, purr, rasp, rattle, roar, rumble, rustle, scream screech shriek, shuffle, sing, sizzle, slurp, snap, splash, squawk, squeal, strike, sweep, swish, swoosh, thud, thunder, trumpet, wheeze, whisper, whistle

Today’s Challenge:  Turn Up the Volume

How can you use verbs to add sound effects to the imagery of sentences? Select three of the basic, boring sentences below, and breath life into them by revising them, adding volume verbs and other vivid, detailed imagery.  As you revise, read them aloud, listening for each sentence’s soundtrack.

For example:

Basic Sentence:  The teacher raised his voice.

Revised Sentence:  The teacher’s voice thundered through the classroom as he barked at the students to sit down.

The car was old.

The children played.

The rain fell heavily.

The new day dawned.

The cat looked friendly.

The children were excited.

The student worked busily.

The restaurant was packed.

The fireworks were displayed.

The student woke to his alarm clock.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Listen to the sound of your language.  Read your words out loud.  Pay attention to their rhythm and cadence and flow.  Consider the way they reverberate in your head, how they stir your heart.  Ask how your reader would respond to ‘farewell’ as opposed to ‘goodbye,’ or to ‘mockingbird’ as opposed to ‘crow.’  -Stephen Wilbers in Mastering the Craft of Writing

1-http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/12/entertainment/batman-50-anniversary-burt-ward-feat/

2-http://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html