Word Matters Podcast

The Onomatopoeia Episode

Word Matters, Episode 28

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First, we'll look at some words that first described a sound (like pop, or buzz) that then went on to describe completely different things (like pop, or buzz). Then, we'll get into the phenomenon known as back-formation, or, the creation of a word by the alteration of an existing word (like burgle from burglar). It leaves some people feeling less than gruntled.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: When you take an existing word and you remove a prefix or suffix and you get a new word.

Neil Serven: When a word is coined based on the imitation of a sound that the object it describes or the action it describes makes.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a look at two especially interesting ways that words come to be. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. At Merriam-Webster, we love to visit the newborn words in the newborn word nursery, where we marvel at their tiny fingernails and coo over their creation stories. Especially charming are the creation stories involving onomatopoeia. That's when a word is formed in imitation of a sound, think buzz or pop. And like buzz and pop, these words sometimes embark on careers distinct from their initial imitative roles. Here's Neil Serven with some words that started as onomatopoeia and went on to live less obvious lives.

Neil Serven: We talk about the different ways that words enter the language, and I think one of the more fun ways that we learn in school is through what we call onomatopoeia. And that is when a word is coined based on the imitation of a sound that the object it describes or the action it describes makes. You think from the old Batman cartoon, the sound effects that would appear on screen whenever there was a fight scene, it would be pow and thwack. Those are sound effects but obviously words like "snap, crackle, and pop" from Rice Krispies, the sound of the cereal. But the word snap sounds like a finger snapping. The word crackle sounds like something crackling, like a fire, perhaps. It's not a coincidence that these words stick in our language because they're very close to the image of the word. They're close to the sound that they make and the memory of the word. When we think of the impact of the word to say something went pow, or when the car beeped its horn, you hear that high pitch of the car's horn by the choice of the verb beep with its long E. A particular angle to onomatopoeia that really strikes me as interesting, is when a word enters the language as onomatopoeia and then extends in meaning to refer to something apart from the sound that it's meant to imitate. I think of the word buzz, we think of bees, we think of aircraft. There's a certain sound we think of when we talk about buzzing, but we now use buzz to refer to things beyond that. We use it to refer to rumor. We use it to refer to gossip, when there's a lot of buzz about the singer's new album. We have a meaning in the dictionary that says "speculative or excited talk or attention relating, especially to a new or forthcoming product or event." You would think it doesn't refer to bees. You would think it doesn't refer to airplanes or saws. One of the things it might refer to is things like a phone buzzing with alerts. That's how you get your news now. When you get alerts to something from an app that you've subscribed to, your phone will buzz. I do believe this sense of buzz does come from before smartphones, but I'm not entirely sure.

Emily Brewster: I imagine a crowd of people talking and the sound of those voices buzzing, the buzz of conversation.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Neil Serven: The buzz of the crowd, right?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Yeah.

Neil Serven: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. But these are the kinds of examples of onomatopoeia that really interests me. And another example I think of is the term jingle, which originally refers to the high pitched sound made by light metals that are making contact with each other. So, you think of the jingle of coins in your pocket, but you also think of the jingle of sleigh bells and that's why we hear the word jingle in a number of Christmas songs. Because the sound of sleigh bells jingling is a trope of Christmas. It's what we think of when we think of Christmas activities. So, we have "Jingle Bells," "Jingle Bell Rock," and jingle appears on a number of Christmas songs. Now, though, we use jingle in advertising. We talk about an advertising jingle, it is something that is supposed to be catchy. It is a song or a line that is just supposed to be catchy and to be remembered. And usually, there's some kind of repetitive aspect of the jingle, that might be a rhyme or alliteration that makes it stick in your head. It might be a tune that sticks in your head. How many times have you had certain advertising songs in your head long after the product stopped being advertised? So, that was another example of an onomatopoeia that then took on a succinct meaning that was apart from the sound of metal clinking on a sleigh or in a pocket of coins.

Emily Brewster: Right. So these are onomatopes, I just learned that word recently, an onomatope being an onomatopoeic word.

Neil Serven: Really?

Ammon Shea: That's a great word.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Onomatopes that have moved beyond their onomatopoetic meaning.

Ammon Shea: What about the word itself? Is onomatopoeia an example of itself? Because that would be kind of neat if it was.

Neil Serven: It would be neat. It's not quite like oxymoron where the word is actually made up of parts that are itself oxymoronic, but onomatopoeia derives via Latin from Greek. Anima means name. If you are familiar with the term animistics, is the science of naming things. That's from the same root as that word. And poiein, I believe is how you pronounce it, is the Greek verb for "to make." That is part of the etymology of our word poet.

Ammon Shea: Oh, that's perfect. I have to say that the dreamer in me hopes that it had come about from some guy trying to come up with a word or some woman trying to come up with a word. And I'm falling downstairs in the noises they made, as they were trying to come up with a word and somehow that made...

Emily Brewster: That reminds me of one of my favorite onomatopoetic words, and that is borborygmus.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, yes.

Emily Brewster: Do you guys know borborygmus, right?

Ammon Shea: Oh my goodness.

Emily Brewster: Borborygmus in English is... it's a technical word. It's not a word that gets thrown into everyday conversations. It refers to intestinal rumblings, so we're all familiar with borborygmus as a phenomenon-

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: ...I think it's safe to say. But the word in English is not onomatopoetic, but it comes from a Greek word borboryzein. I'm sure I'm not pronouncing that right, because I'm pronouncing it like it's German. But that word means "to rumble" and that word is thought to be onomatopoetic.

Ammon Shea: Aha.

Peter Sokolowski: And it's true that sounds, sounds of animals, sounds of people, are behind a lot of these, not just mechanical things like a jingle or a gong or a plink. But we have moo and gobble and for speech, babble and jabber and mumble and _chatterv. I mean, there's a bunch of these.

Emily Brewster: And bird names are huge.

Neil Serven: Yeah. A lot of animal names-

Peter Sokolowski: All right.

Neil Serven: ...are based on the sounds that they make. Cuckoo is certainly an example.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Neil Serven: Whippoorwill, of you ever heard of a whippoorwill, it makes that three-toned sound and someone decided to come up with the spelling whippoorwill to evoke the sound that the whippoorwill made.

Peter Sokolowski: Chickadee probably.

Emily Brewster: Chickadee, definitely.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Neil Serven: Chickadee, definitely. So a couple of my favorites also that are not extended figurative uses, like I talked before, but cliche, the term cliche comes from stereotype printing. It's via French. It's the French interpretation of the sound of a dye striking metal.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, of course.

Emily Brewster: Oh, wow.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. I did not know that. Wow.

Ammon Shea: Oh that's great.

Neil Serven: I think another one of my favorites, because we use the word gargle to refer to that sound and when we splash water in our throat, but the word gargoyle comes from that same idea. Gargoyles are spouts on buildings that are made like animals and it's the sound of rainwater gargling through the opening of the mouth of the creature then it becomes gargoyle.

Peter Sokolowski: I never knew that.

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: I thought those should have a more sinister backstory. Did you know that there is an onomatopoetic backstory to the word boudoir?

Peter Sokolowski: No.

Neil Serven: Oh my goodness. No.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Yeah. According to our unabridged dictionary, the word boudoir comes from a French word meaning "to pout or be sulky." And the unabridged dictionary reports that that is probably of imitative origin.

Neil Serven: There's a longer story there between how you go from-

Emily Brewster: Yeah, there's a little flash fiction piece.

Neil Serven: ...this whole story between pouting and somebody not being happy and...

Peter Sokolowski: And our Unabridged dictionary also from the entry for onomatopoeia has a curious cross-reference to something that's new to me, bow-wow theory. And the entry for bow-wow theory says "a theory that language originated in imitations of natural sounds such as those of birds, dogs or thunder." And then it says "compare ding-dong theory." So let's go to ding-dong theory, which says "a theory that language originated out of a natural correspondence between objects of sense perception and the vocal noises, which were part of early humans' reaction to them." So you'd make a noise that corresponded to what you were looking at, I guess. And then this says "compare pooh pooh theory," which is defined as "a theory that language originated in interjections, which gradually acquired meaning."

Ammon Shea: I'd love to see the intersectionality at a conference of pooh pooh theorists, ding-dong theorists, and bow-wow theorists, that would really be worth the price of admission.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, there's three clearly mid-20th century intellectual domains that I had never heard of, but they're all there. The dictionary is infinite.

Emily Brewster: There's also a lexical feature phonesthemes. Phonesthemes, that is "a common feature of sound that occurs in a group of symbolic words." The professor of English and rhetoric, Richard Norquist, I came across an article that he wrote about phonesthemes. English has got a lot of phonesthemes, words that begin with S-N for example, there are a whole bunch of them that have to do with the nose: sneeze, snout, snot, snort. All of these that have to do with the nose. There're ones that begin with G-L that have to do with the light, like glimmer and glint and glisten. They're onomatopoetic-adjacent words. There's a symbolism in the sound that is then connected to the words, and words can even shift in meaning because of these phonesthemes. They can actually push a word in a particular direction. You've got mumble, mutter, grumble, murmur, all of these words that have to do with indistinct speech that all have that "mm" sound in them.

Neil Serven: I'm thinking also of words that don't even have to do with sound, like S-L at the beginning of words, that refer to things that don't have traction, like slide, slip, slick. S-L seems to be this perfect blend for that because it's a slick consonant cluster in its own, right? It rolls off the tongue and so we then use that to refer to these examples of words where something is not staying in place. That's fascinating.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Neil Serven: But it's always been there and you never noticed it, and then it makes perfect sense.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. And then there are also the S-L words that have to do with wetness, like slush, wet, slick, slime. Phonesthemes: fun.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Neil Serven: Phonesthemes are fun.

Emily Brewster: Also in vowels like E, teeny. There's the sense that, that high front vowel sound of E denotes something that's small.

Neil Serven: Teeny almost sounds smaller than tiny in a weird way, just because of the way you're pronouncing the vowel.

Emily Brewster: The vowel sound is higher. Onomatopes are not onomatopoetic.

Neil Serven: They're not.

Ammon Shea: More's the pity.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with what happens when you chop the end of a word off. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Do you get disgruntled when people take a perfectly good word and chop off part of it to make a perfectly annoying word? Like making surveil from surveillance. There's a name for this practice, it's called back-formation. With any luck our exploration of the topic, with me at the helm, will help you feel more gruntled about the whole thing.

Of all the various ways that words come to be, one of my very favorite is the process called back-formation. Back-formation is when you take an existing word and you remove a prefix or suffix and you get a new word. So, for example, the word television, that word dates to around 1907 and by 1927, we had the word televise. It's very common to go from a noun to a verb, in this way back-formation, you just chop off that suffix and get the verb. This is the rich way to get verbs in English. We have donate from donation. Donate dates to late 18th century and donation had been around since the 15th century. Diagnose came from diagnosis, choreograph from choreography, and often there's a lag of hundreds of years between the formation of one from the other. But they don't have to be verbs, the noun statistic comes from the other noun statistics and homesick comes from homesickness, an adjective from a noun. It's a really rich and natural way for words to form. One of my very favorites is a little surprising, there's the word escalate. To escalate, as in "we let an argument escalate, we let it increase in power."

Neil Serven: That escalated quickly.

Emily Brewster: Yes. That escalated quickly. That dates to only 44 years after the invention of the escalator, which was originally a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company. So we get the word escalate, even though an escalator can go up and down, when something escalates, it only increases in its intensity.

Ammon Shea: We don't have a de-escalator?

Emily Brewster: No, not at my mall.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. But aren't back formations often frowned upon?

Emily Brewster: Yes. Give me one. What's one you know?

Ammon Shea: Burgle is-

Emily Brewster: Burgle.

Ammon Shea: ...the most common one and some people seem to really dislike burgle.

Emily Brewster: Well and burglarize is also a back-formation. They are both back-formations from burglar.

Ammon Shea: Oh, okay.

Emily Brewster: Well, the funny thing about that pair is that, so burglar had been around since the early 16th century and then burgle and burglarize are both earliest evidences from the 1870s.

Ammon Shea: What about burglariously?

Peter Sokolowski: Mm-hmm (laughing).

Neil Serven: So burgle was frowned upon even though quite often, people will complain about I-Z-E words in various forms.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: So did people really prefer burglarize over burgle?

Emily Brewster: Well, burgle is used more in British English and burglarize is used more in American English. And it is weird that the longer -ize term was adopted in American English and burgle... I don't know, the first time I heard burgle, I thought it was a joke. It just sounded like such a silly, ridiculous word. But if you think about it, burglarize is also kind of a silly-sounding word.

Neil Serven: So if you steal hamburgers, you're hamburgling, not hamburglarizing, right?

Emily Brewster: Exactly.

Neil Serven: It's funny, I think of a Denis Johnson story, I can't remember which one it was, but one of the characters avoids both of those verbs and he says, "You can't burgulate your own house." And so somehow he gets the -ate in there for burglaration. I don't know. But burgle versus burglarize it eschews the problem altogether.

Emily Brewster: What did you call it before burgle and burglarize? You would have to make it be about the noun, right? Or use a verb that's not related to it. A burglar broke in and stole things.

Neil Serven: Right. What was a burglar doing if you called it a burglar?

Emily Brewster: Right. As editors, just want to note that the word editor existed for 142 years, per the available evidence, before there was a verb edit.

Ammon Shea: Wow, that's a long time.

Emily Brewster: Isn't that wild. So what were we doing? What were the editors of the world doing if not editing? We weren't editing.

Neil Serven: That's a good question.

Ammon Shea: Hacking. Other words that you mentioned earlier when we were talking about words people didn't like, is donate. In the 19th century, really got people's knickers in a twist. Richard Grant White wrote, "This word donate is utterly abominable. One that any lover of simple, honest English can not hear with patients and without offense." Oliver Bell Bunce, who wrote a book with the great title of Don't, wrote, "If one cannot give his church or town library little money without calling it donating, let him in the name of good English keep his gift until he has learned better." I mean, really, people were bent out of shape about this.

Emily Brewster: Well, and the word donation was so old, right? It was hundreds of years old at that point, so that surely is what the objection was as to degradation of an existing stalwart term.

Ammon Shea: Right. Absolutely. Is it just a matter of, if a word is old and we do a recent back-formation and people don't like it? Because to me it's always seemed like it was just illogical, like some back-formations are totally fine and every once in a while one comes along and everybody goes, "Don't say that."

Peter Sokolowski: I think some of them feel completely natural. Look edit. Although we always hate the changes that we notice in language.

Ammon Shea: Like liaise. People don't like liaise from liaison, people don't like incent from-

Peter Sokolowski: Incentivize.

Ammon Shea: ...Incentivize.

Emily Brewster: Commentate.

Neil Serven: All right.

Emily Brewster: Commentate dates to the late 18th century, at least. And it comes from commentator, which dates to the 14th century. But commentate has a much more recent feel to it, I think people will be very surprised to realize that it was so old.

Neil Serven: We also have the verb comment, which is a different verb. And when people hear commentator, the commentator is one who makes comments. And so the fact that then we then created this new verb sort of in-between that wasn't quite comment, but was from commentator, specifically for the job of what a commentator does, which is apparently more than commenting. And so it's almost like you're trying to fill this niche between just commenting, which can have different contexts in different circumstances, versus a sports commentator or a news commentator doing commentating.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a new profession and it needed a new verb.

Ammon Shea: So Emily, do you have a unified theory of what makes a back-formation bad? Is it a combination of age versus chronological discrepancy with suffixes? Is it just happenstance? Which ones do you think are most likely to get censored?

Emily Brewster: I think it's probably a few different things and issues that are also true of complaints that people have about other words that are not back-formations. They're the dreaded suffixes -ize and -ate, we just love to hate. And then there's the recency thing that we don't like when our words get degraded by new forms.

Ammon Shea: And then there are other factors such as racism. Conversate was a great example of that. Conversate has been around since at least the very beginning of the 19th century, it's definitely over 200 years old. And it didn't come up a lot, but it wasn't that big of a deal. And then Biggie Smalls used it and suddenly people decided that, "Oh, this is a really bad, word, the rapper used it. This is destroying English." What's wrong with conversate? It seems pretty self-explanatory, it seems useful and it seems like it's no different functionally from escalate.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Well, and if you look at the alternative, people say, "Well, we already have the word converse." But converse is kind of an outlier as verbs go. There aren't very many prefixed -verse words.

Ammon Shea: Sure.

Emily Brewster: But this -versate, that's actually the more normal, that's actually the more regular construction for a verb.

Ammon Shea: And Biggie Smalls, I'm not going to put words in his mouth or imagine what he might've felt, but I have a hard time imagining him saying converse, and having the proper rhythmic structure that his rhymes would typically have. Conversate, if it fits, it seems like it's a perfectly useful word. And we've always made allowances for poets in stretching linguistic forms.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course it does sound more poetic.

Ammon Shea: Right. Right.

Peter Sokolowski: You can play with that-

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: ...and it's easy to rhyme.

Ammon Shea: Right. We tend to make fewer of those allowances for rappers it seems.

Emily Brewster: Oh, just a few.

Ammon Shea: Right. Yeah. Just a few, coincidentally enough. It's not coincidence of course but yeah, conversate has got that additional thing against it and people have been complaining about that for a while now.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Another back formation that I really like is gruntle.

Neil Serven: Oh, yes.

Emily Brewster: So disgruntle dates to... Our current earliest evidence for disgruntle is 1682, means "to make discontented or ill-humored." But in the 1920s, some artful writer coined the word gruntle like "to put into good humor." There already was another word gruntle, that writer probably did not know about, and that was a word that just meant "to grumble." But the dis- in disgruntle, it doesn't mean to do the opposite of, it was an intensifier. So to disgruntle meant to grumble extra. That's what disgruntled...

Neil Serven: Really?

Emily Brewster: Yeah that's what the word originally meant. But one of the funny things about back-formations is that often it's an ill-informed and it doesn't need to be informed actually, but we just chop off these suffixes that we imagine sometimes and prefixes that we imagine, and it doesn't really matter if our understanding of those prefixes or suffixes is correct.

Peter Sokolowski: And another one is complicit from complicity, which is interesting. So you'd think that complicit the adjective would almost be a precondition for the noun, but it's not.

Neil Serven: Wasn't it PG Wodehouse who had fun with gruntle?

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Neil Serven: One of his characters said something like, "I could see that as not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."

Ammon Shea: That's from The Code Of The Woosters.

Emily Brewster: Peas. The pea that we eat, the vegetable pea. Our modern word is a product of backformation also. The original word was pease, P-E-A-S-E. And it was understood as a mass noun like salt or butter. You would have some peas, you wouldn't have a pea. And this is why it was also the explanation for the word pisiform, which means "shaped like a pea," comes from the same Latin source as our English word pea.

Ammon Shea: Wow.

Emily Brewster: Who knew? Flappable also is another one.

Peter Sokolowski: From unflappable.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And those are both new. Sometimes back-formations, there's a bit of a link about them in their use. Like gruntle, I think, and like flappable, everybody knows the use of the word is a bit of a joke itself. And sometimes with burgle, I think in American use anyway. Flappable, earliest evidence of that is 1968 and unflappable, meaning "not easily upset," only dates to the middle of the 20th century, like 10 years earlier.

Neil Serven: Emily, you started with the example of escalator, which is kind of fascinating because there might've been a sense at one point of going up stairs. But if there was, we don't use it that way anymore. We now use escalate to mean "to increase," escalating tensions, like the Ron Burgundy quote "that escalated quickly." It's funny that not only did we make the back-formation, but then we gave it this whole new identity. You mentioned the Otis Elevator Company and I assumed the verb to elevate already existed before the elevator was invented, right? Do we know that?

Emily Brewster: Yes. The verb elevate dates to 15th century, which I'm pretty sure is before the invention of the elevator.

Neil Serven: Certainly before Otis... Because Otis, I think wasn't really the inventor of the elevator, he was inventor of the safety elevator. There were ways to get people in a manual way up to the second floor of something, but it was the device that included a safety break. That was what allowed it to be installed in skyscrapers and things like that. Elevate is another word that also does not mean to go down. You can go up and down in an elevator, but you can only go up when you elevate someone, you don't bring them down. You elevate discourse, you bring it up in some way. So that just struck me as an interesting narrowing of use from the back-formation.

Peter Sokolowski: Even though we wink at some of these, like burgle, there are some that are completely standard. Like aristocrat from aristocracy and coordinate from coordination and decadent from decadence and diagnose from diagnosis. So a lot of these are totally standard and we probably imagined them to be issued from the word factory at the same time.

Ammon Shea: Brainwash from brainwashing.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So they become completely standard. This is a really good way to invent a word. The meaning and the semantic field is already set and established, the context too, and it just means that they want this flexibility of another part of speech.

Emily Brewster: That's right. And it's one of the things that words that are formed through back-formation have going for them as far as them being new acquaintances, is that they're so readily understood. The meaning is very apparent because the morphological structure is readily understood and the meaning of the root word is right there, and so the word's ready to go.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, that may help with its absorption and inclusion and success as a word.

Emily Brewster: Absolutely.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: This is chapter one in Word Coinage for Dummies.

Emily Brewster: Go with a back-formation. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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