A word that’s spelled like how feels to say.
As every dorky seventh-grader knows, onomatopoeia is what we call it when a word’s spelling emulates its own sound.
Bump! Blam! Zlorp! (yes, zlorp…)
We think of them as play words, childlike and fun, connoted as they are so often with children’s literature, comics, and cartoons. Think Batman’s Biffs! and Thwacks! Or the cold snikt of Logan’s claws. The thwip of Spidey’s webs… Nightcrawler brimstone BAMFs… it’s endless, really.
But onomatopoeia aren’t just fantasy sounds. They’re like us. They’re dull. They hide all around, studding our drudge as we slap our alarms in the morning and honk or our horns in traffic. We click our mice and tap our keyboards. We scratch our scalps and rattle the ice in our empty cold brew as we flip through magazines and crunch on our salads (as opposed to that dripping, sizzling burger your buddy got).
Everywhere smartphones ring and emails woosh and elevators chime as we shuffle and gabble and prattle and chatter and whisper and hollar and whine through the beeping and splashing and crashing and roaring and plinking and belching and zipping and zooming and tearing and hissing and hooting and blaring, tintinnabulatory world.
But there’s something else I’ve noticed: A species of word so seemingly similar to onomatopoeia, it’s often overlooked. These are words that aren’t merely spelled to emulate their sound – rather, the work it takes to sound them emulates what they mean.
There should be a word for all these words. Not onomatopoeia… but onometapoeia. Words whose spelling tells the story of how they feel. See what I did there? Cleverness. Ever heard of it?
Ever notice how smooth the word smooth is? Say it out loud to yourself. Smooooooooth. No bumps. No wrinkles. Not one ruckled phoneme. Smooth is pure smoothness from tip to tail. It slips effortlessly from the mouth like a hand over a bedsheet.
Think of the journey a slip takes. How it slides on the slick s, then lifts off the palate on the l, hovers aloft for the breath of the i, before collapsing finally on the cold, terminal p. Every slip slips from the lips.
Say it to yourself. Do it now. I dare ya. Slip.
Spot one, and you’ll start to see onometapoeiae everywhere.
Think of how lazy lazys feel, stretching out like housecats and luxuriating across a sentence.
Or how looms loooooooom long and dark,
How boats bob on the buoyancy of their vowels, hulled in by their consonants.
Or how every fling is flung from your teeth and tongue.
Even tongue. It fills the mouth to say its name. Say it now. Like a soft fist bunched in your mouth.
I love these words. They’re like little stories of themselves. Sleeks dive like falcons. Swamps feel like boots stuck in mud. Yonder echoes. Lather foams. Wrench and pry take oomph and muscle to intone. Your ear might hear a bell ring. But you can feel in your mind every wring of a washcloth.
Slink. Velvet. Snuggle. Swivel. Frond. Crouch. Shine… They’re endless.
Even nipple is a story of itself. Nipple! A sprightly bump, it juts and puckers, calling unanticipated attention to itself. Have you ever heard someone say nipple in casual conversation? You can’t take your mind’s eye off it… peeking through the cotton t-shirt of someone’s sentence. Nipple is just so… nippleish… innocent and dirty at once.
All this to say… the world’s on fire. And unkindness is rampant. Take what joy you can find and squeeze it to the last drop. Look around at the words around you, and lean closer to the onametapoeia you can hear.
And if you can’t find an onometapoeia… just look down. There are two (hopefully) waiting for you just under your shirt.