Saturday, February 6, 2016

Looks Like a Word

Everyone is familiar with the concept of onomatopoeia—word that is spelled like it sounds.  “Splat” is a perfect example.  This word does not owe its etymology to the Greeks or Romans:  it probably came from some poor writer's dropping his lunch. 

The word “onomatopoeia” on the other hand, is derived from the Greek words for “to make” and “name”—which probably isn’t fair, as the word for onomatopoeia should, by all rights, be an onomatopoeia. 

Most of these words are culturally based, which is why ducks go “wang wang” in China and clocks go “di dah” in Japan.  Cows the world over make some kind of mooing noise, except in Hungary where they go “bu”.  I wonder what sounds Hungarian ghosts make?

These words are often described as a form of poetry.  Certainly, Carl Sandburg thought so—His poem Jazz Fantasia is often cited as the best examples of onomatopoeia in literature:

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes,
sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-
husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

George Eastman was so fond of the sound a camera shutter made—“Kodak!”—that he used the term for his new photography company.  Advertisers have followed his example ever since.  Everyone knows what goes “Plop! Plop! Fizz! Fizz!” and there is probably not a person on the planet who does not know the sound Rice Krispies make in milk.

Even government has gotten into the act.  Several countries have used sounds to promote the use of automobile seat belts.  In England, the campaign was “Clunk, Click, Every Trip”, in Australia, it was “Click, Clack, Front And Back”, and in the U.S., it was “Click It Or Ticket”

Only one business loved these words more than advertisers—the comic book industry.  Bif!  Pow!  Ka-blooey!  Batman practically lived in a monosyllabic world (if for no other reason than the rather short words would fit into a single cartoon panel while expressing both motion and emotion).  The writers quickly learned that the use of onomatopoeia intensified the action of a scene.

In 2002, a writer for DC Comics capitalized on the use of such words by creating a new supervillain by the name of "Onomatopoeia".  In his duels with the Green Arrow and Batman, his dialogue—I bet you are way ahead of me—consisted of single descriptive words.  In one memorable scene, as he shoots the Green Arrow, he softly says:  “Bang!”  While it was meant to be something of an inside joke in the world of graphic novels, the villain was popular with the more literate readers.

Roy Lichtenstein took the onomatopoeia into the world of art in 1963 with his ground breaking painting “Whaam!”  Inspired by a 1962 issue of DC ComicsAll-American Men of War, it is probably his most famous work and shows an American fighter plane firing a rocket into an exploding enemy plane.  (Actually, of course, this piece was fairly derivative of his 1962 painting “Blam” but since the name of that painting used conventional spelling and lacked the all-important exclamation mark, the art world ignored it.)

All of the above are referring to words that are spelled to copy a sound, but as far as I can determine (that means I googled it for about two minutes) there is no noun for a word that looks like what it is describing.  Since the task falls to me, I will do it properly, resorting once again to Greek word roots.  This gives us onomatomalosa, or ‘resemble name’.

I will be the first to admit that onomatomalosa will be a concept that will be used a little less frequently than onomatopoeia.  Actually, after extensive research (I drank two beers) I was only able to come up with three such words.

The first is ‘Bed’.  Okay, I admit that it would be better if we spelled the word as ‘Beeeeed’, but you have to work with you’ve got.  Obviously, the word looks like a bed.

The second word is ‘eYe’.  Yes, I played around with the capitalization a little, but it still works.  And somehow, when I look at the word, it makes me think of owls—smart owls wearing glasses.

I’ve saved the best for last.  ‘Boob’ is a triple onomatomalosa.  Let’s break the word down.  ‘B’ is a top view, ‘oo’ is obviously a front view, and ‘b’ is a side view.

There have to be other such words.  Feel free to add to the list in the comment section below.


  1. Too funny! And kudos on originality!

  2. So far, it has been suggested that I add 'Loops', but it has to be in cursive to work, 'Look'with a font that makes eyes out of the letter 'o', and the word 'U-Turn'. I'm still thinking about this.

  3. Nothing that anyone ever comes up with can top "Boob".