Bunches of English words are imitative, or onomatopoeic. Some have even been put to music…
Splish-splash I was taking a bath
This post considers some not-quite top-40s, yet equally enjoyable examples.
Didgeridoo, an aboriginal Australian word, was first written down in English in 1924. Presumably, the name imitates a didgeridoo’s sounds just as it is filled with air.
Another great music-related onomatopoeic word is oom-pah, born in 1877 (when John Phillips Souza was only twenty-three years old). This word is imitative of the sounds made by the tuba and sousaphone.
Starting out meaning mindless babbling, & morphing into a word meaning crazy or silly, we have gaga, which appeared in English in 1920.
We call a petty quarrel a spat, because spat sounds like a slap or smack, often an element in a petty quarrel. Spat first showed up in English in 1804.
Squabble most likely has imitative roots, also. It seems some Scandinavian speakers had an onomatopoeic word referring to a babbling quarrel. This word made its way into English somewhere around 1600 in the form of squabble.
Squabbles or spats might also include any number of words imitative of a hit or strike. Slap, whack, thump, bonk & bash are examples.
Heaps of imitative words refer to the noises we sometimes make:
he-he, imitative of laughter, showed up sometime before Middle English
yodel showed up in English in 1827
hiss showed up as early as the 1300s
sneeze showed up in the late 1500s. Its pre-Germanic root
(fneu-s) was imitative.
howl came to English during the 1200s from an unspecified Germanic
guffaw showed up in English from Scottish in 1720
gag appeared in the 1400s & may have Old Norse onomatopoeic roots
blather has either Scottish or Old Norse roots, both of which are imitative.
Keep your ears open this week for words that just might be imitative. And in all your spare time (ha!) feel free to leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Didgeridoo Origins & Use, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & Etymonline
English is rife with colorful terms referring to irrelevant, useless, or empty words. As we ramp up to ramping up to elections, let’s celebrate a few of them.
Bunk appeared in American English about 1900 as a shortened form of bunkum, meaning nonsense. By most accounts the term was born in the US House of Representatives when North Carolina Representative Felix Walker threw in his two cents regarding Missouri’s statehood in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line. He needed to say something that would appear in the papers back home in Buncombe, so he unabashedly made a "long, dull, irrelevant speech." In time, Buncombe shifted to bunkum, which got shortened to bunk.
Blatherskite was born during the American Revolution, & refers to both the words spoken by a talkative, nonsensical person & the person him/herself. It comes of blather, meaning to babble. Blather is a Scottish term derived from an Old Norse word meaning to wag the tongue; added to skite, meaning a contemptible individual. We see a related ending in the word cheapskate, & a related beginning in the term blithering idiot. Skite also originated in Old Norse, from a word meaning to shoot, which apparently is what the Old Norse thought should be done with blatherers.
Bosh came to English in the 1830s from Turkish. Its literal Turkish meaning of empty applies in English only to meaningless speech or writing.
Claptrap appeared in the 1730s & meant a stage trick to catch applause. Since then we’ve lost the applause-inducing element of the term & it simply means cheap, nonsensical or pretentious language.
There are so many great synonyms for bunk, blatherskite, bosh & claptrap. Followers, what empty-word words would you add to the list?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymonline.com, Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.