Onomatopoeia! Thud-Whallop-Crash!

Experts around the world agree almost universally on this point: cows go moo.

There is also fairly general consensus that cats go meow, birds go tweet, and dogs go woof.

If, for any reason, I’d previously harboured doubts about the sounds made by those animals, my queries would have been put to rest when my daughter was little. One of the really enjoyable aspects of being a parent of a baby, toddler, and then pre-schooler, was the books I got to read. It was hard to stay grumpy with sleep deprivation, while reading, out loud, nonsense rhymes, poems and stories, and pulling the appropriately silly faces, and making the appropriately silly noises, to go along with the words.

The best were, of course, the books written by authors who are masters in the use of words, and of manoeuvring rhyme and rhythm* to suit the story, while exhibiting an irreverent sense of humour at the same time. Of those, Dr Suess, Rohald Dahl, and Spike Milligan, were some of my favourites.

If you must read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

If you need to read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

Spike Milligan was one of the most fun to read, and, I think we can cautiously venture, reveals himself to be somewhat of an expert in animals and the sounds they make, as illustrated by the article below.

On the Ning Nang Nong

Well ok, Milligan was obviously brought up in the city, since cows don’t go bong, they go moo, as we’ve previously covered. And trees don’t go ping, he must have been thinking of all those pesky microwave ovens that are always pinging away noisily everywhere you go in the city.

Nevertheless, when I received another request (?!) this week, to write a post on a specific topic, this time on onomatopoeia, my first thought was, who better to introduce the concept than Spike Milligan?

Who indeed. I got hours of enjoyment from his book of silly verse, delightfully titled Unspun Socks From A Chicken’s Laundry, a well-worn paperback that we found second hand in an Op (Thrift) shop. It’s yellowed with age and pages are falling out, but I had a lot of fun reading out loud to my daughter and possibly even sometimes to myself, just for laughs. The book design conveys what a hive of creativity the author was – some pages have traditionally printed text on them, while others reproduce handwritten poems and scribbled drawings done by the author.

Milligan’s poems have no morals or logic, and are simply downright silly. It’s precisely for that reason that it’s so refreshing to read them. I should probably mention that in keeping with the period (the poems were written through the 1970s – the book was first published 1981), there are some warnings: political incorrectness (eg Chinkey Chinkey Chinaman), inclusion of topics nowadays deemed unsuitable for children (I locked all the drink in the cellar/so nothing could get at the gin) a combination of the two (A Scotsman drowning in a whiskey vat) and no messing around with euphemisms. And always with such silliness that all offensiveness is surely dissipated.

Witness The ‘Veggy’ Lion:

I’m a vegetarian Lion

I’ve given up all meat,

I’ve given up all roaring

All I do is go tweet-tweet


I used to be ferocious,

I even tried to kill!

But the sight of all that blood

made me feel quite ill.


A tip for any parents feeling a mixture of curiosity and trepidation: the good thing is, when reading to small children, you can just leave whole poems out and they won’t know! For example, looking back at the book tonight, I dare say that in the interests of not creating a phobia about going to the dentist, we probably didn’t read our daughter the poem called By Gum:

Death to the Dentist!/Death to his drill!/Death to his ‘open wides’/Kill! Kill! Kill!

However, it softens the otherwise rather sinister tone to know that poem was inspired by his five-year-old son saying that he wanted to kill the dentist! Notes throughout the book indicate where and when poems were written, (eg Sydney, 1980) and some poems have extra notes to indicate when they were devised with his kids, or when something they said inspired Milligan’s imagination. For example, under the limerick about a girl called Nelly who has a nylon belly, which turns out (not entirely surprisingly) to be full of custard and jelly, is a note written by Jane and dad on the way back from the Natural History Museum, 15 October 1977.

Anyway, since you are probably wondering by now, the reason I thought of Milligan is because he has a poem called (this is how it is spelled in the book) Onamatapia. It goes as follows:



Thud – Wallop – CRASH!


Snip – Snap – GNASH!


Whack – thud – BASH!


Bong – Ting – SPLASH!


Onomatopoeia (pronounced, at least if you’re Australian, On-om-atta-pee-ya) is the formation of a word to make (as closely as possible) the sound it describes – eg cuckoo, meow, bam, whack, slap, bong, snip, splat.

The Miriam Webster dictionary says that onomatopoeia is:

the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as in buzz, hiss)

Onomatopoeia helps the reader to hear the sounds in the world created by the writer. The interesting thing is that so many onomatopoeiac (?not sure what the adjective is) words are really fun to say and hear.

It’s clear that Milligan has an ear for such words and loves to use them. Unspun Socks…. fairly clangs, pops and thuds with the noisy fun of silly words bursting out of it. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, he says that the poems were inspired by listening to the way his children used words, and noting down mispronounced, misunderstood, and self-invented words. “Knowing children’s love of vocal exclamation, i.e. Boom! Bang! etc. – I’ve included a few bits of onomatopoeia,….”

He certainly has. Consider these lines from various poems in Unspun Socks:

Chip chop/chip chop/down comes a tree, Chip/chop/wallop/plop/Help, it’s fallen on me!

…They practise every night at nine/Plankety plank bumm-bumm!!

….He tied them back/with bits of string/But they shot out again/with a noisy – PING!

….Wallop! Wallop Thud! I go/until the bell goes ding!

….Gurgle gurgle gurgle!/that’s urgle with a G!!/The sound that people make I hear/when drowning in the sea!

They are also full of the self-invented and mistaken words that he loves, particularly imaginary creatures, like The Squirdle:

I thought I saw a Squirdle

I think I thought I saw

I think I thunk I thought

I saw a Squirdle by my door…..

There are creatures such as the Hipporhinostricow, the Leetle, the Multikertwigo (who says Sniddle, Iddle Ickle Thwack/Nicki-Nacki-Noo) and something inside his Granny’s boot that goes Binkle-Bonk Ickle-tickle-toot!*

I’m getting off the topic of onomatopaeia here but trying to illustrate that Milligan’s silly verses are just bursting with playfulness, and his use of onomatopaeia is one part of that. If these poems have an agenda, it is to impart a sense that words are a lot of fun!

I feel I should also apologise, or explain, because the request to write a post about onomatopoeia was prompted by my last post, where I said that the word bioluminescence almost seemed to have an element of onomoatopaeia to it, with the soft hiss of the “scence” encapsulating the sound that, in my imagination, is made by the light that softly emits from bioluminescent creatures under the sea. It’s not really onomatopoeia – as I think it’s safe to assume that it’s only in my imagination that bioluminescent light makes a soft hiss.

After all, it’s usually under water.

Spike Milligan poem - Onamatapia

Spike Milligan poem – Onamatapia



*rhythm – that was my second attempt at spelling it correctly

*the boot is now in the zoo


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  1. Telling people how words should be pronounced is the next worst thing to telling them how they should be spelt (or spelled). Violence, at least of a verbal kind, can follow. Bravely, then, I will mention that I was taught to say ‘onomatopoeia’ like the phrase ‘on a mat appear’. Rather neat, I thought, and have stuck to it ever since.

    Incidentally, not everybody does agree on the sounds made by animals. For example, cockerels in England say ‘Cock-a-doddle-doo’ whereas their kin in France say ‘Cocorico’. Likewise, English (and presumably Australian) cows say ‘moo’ but la vache française says ‘meuh’. I don’t know what they say in China but there will be a spiky little symbol to write it with.

    It seems, then, that people do not hear sounds all the same way. Cows apparently don’t sound the same to French ears as they do to English (and presumably, Australian) ears. This means that the idea that there are onomatopoeic words is an illusion. How we hear, or, rather, how we reproduce sounds in spoken and written form is as much as matter of convention as the writing and speaking of any other words. We see the word ‘bang’ and imagine a noise that we assign to the class of bangs. The chances are that if you could hear the ‘bangs’ that people imagine on reading the word, they would all sound different from one another and not at all like the noise we make when we say the word ‘bang’.

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    • Ah yes, an interesting point I didn’t think of, thanks Silver Tiger. You are right about different words for animal sounds in different languages. My take on that, though, is that those words are still onomatopoeic (thank you for that adjective!) – within the language in question. Because they are making the sound that most closely represents what people who speak that language hear.



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