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How many o's in 'ka-booom'?

The Monitor’s language columnist takes a look at a website devoted to written sound effects – a sort of Roget’s Thesaurus for comic book writers.

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Onomatopoeia isn’t over yet. Our language is full of words of imitative origin; that is, words whose sounds suggest their meaning. We speak of pigeons as “cooing,” for instance. That comes from the actual bird sound, which English-attuned ears conventionally hear as “coo,” and then we take that sound and modify it, for example, with the “ing” suffix. The pigeons, meanwhile, never say “cooing.” They just say “coo.”

But the quest for new written sound effects continues. A colleague has just invited my attention to a website called Written Sound (writtensound.com). Its tag line is “How to write the sound of things: imitative words (onomatopoeia) and words of imitative origin.”

The site is a sort of Roget’s Thesaurus for writers of comic books, children’s books, and other genres. It shows how to represent, in the 26 letters that English gives us, the sounds of daily life or, perhaps more crucially for Written Sound’s target audience, the sounds of super-heroes throwing punches, crossing swords with baddies, or vanishing in a puff of smoke – poof?

Those who come up with these written sound effects are like the foley artists of the movies – the special-effects experts who come in after filming to add more sound to what has already been picked up by the sound crew. Foley artists make the sound of footfalls, say, sound even “more” like footfalls.

I’m a little surprised that English doesn’t have a more down-to-earth word for this verbal foley artistry than onomatopoeia, but it doesn’t. It comes from Greek, as do many words having to do with language and rhetoric (rhetoric itself among them).

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