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My Favorite Word, Onomatopoeia and Scott Westerfeld

I have to tell you that I love the word linger. I feel as if I linger over the word as I read it out loud or say it in my head. This is probably because of the hard g followed by the prefix –er, which comes from deep inside the throat. It forces me to pause. Does this make linger an onomatopoeic word? Probably not since the act of lingering does not elicit the sound linger from those who are lingering.

According to Your Dictionary.com, “the word ‘onomatopoeia’ comes from the combination of two Greek words, one meaning ‘name’ and the other meaning ‘I make,’ so onomatopoeia literally means ‘the name (or sound) I make.’ That is to say that the word means nothing more than the sound it makes.” Obviously, linger has different meanings from being tardy to persisting so it’s not as classically onomatopoeic as clink, clank and clunk.

Why do I like the word linger so much? Is it because of the positive implications? You know you linger over your lobster salad lunch, or the memory of your snow globe like trip to Tahoe last winter when your seven year-old learned how to ski.

Maybe it’s because I don’t like transitions. My whole being is afraid of change of any kind. And when you linger you don’t have to move onto anywhere, you can stay where you are. How many times have I have lingered in a bad situation just because it was the situation that I knew, such as my job as a news director at a radio station where the program director forced me to do Jell-O wrestling. Do I always like to linger? No, one does not, say linger in cold strawberry Jell-O. Still, I just like saying that word out loud. It turns out lots of people like saying onomatopoeic words so that’s why you see them in most of your favorite books and poetry and especially picture books.

I was looking up common popular onomatopoeia words I came up with five categories: words related to the elements (water, fire, air) voice, collision, animal (including human), mechanical (including locomotion) sounds.

Here are some examples:

Elements: splash, drip, pop, sizzle, sear, swoosh, whiz

Voice: giggle, grunt, burp

Collision: bam, clatter, screech

Mechanical: chug, whirr, tick tock, ding dog

Now when you look at these groupings of words, do you gravitate towards a certain category or subcategory? I really like the words in the elements category, especially the air subcategory. Swoosh! So satisfying to imagine the basketball swishing into the net. I’m not so into the collision ones. Could that be because I don’t want to get into an accident and have memories of filling out insurance paperwork and all kinds of adult-like associations with those words? Maybe. Probably yes. Okay, if you really want to know the reason I’m driving around in a new Sienna van is because when I backed my old one up I smashed (my original word I had here was hit but isn’t smashed more dramatic?) into a truck (I swear it was hidden behind an overhanging tree branch). But I digress or rather I’m lingering. And lingering gets me to thinking.

And I’m thinking about the book that I’m currently reading out loud to my son. That book is: Leviathan brims with onomatopoeic words. I could pull any page, and I promise they you’d spot several. Here’s two sentences pulled from page 45: “Master Klopp wrenched the Stormwalker to a halt, cycling the Daimlers to a low rumble. The hiss of pneumatics settled around them.”

The book floors me. It’s so filled with images and adventure and Westerfeld understands and describes this steampunk world so effectively and vividly. He gets how things work.

Not me.

Mechanical things scare me.

My impulse is to look away when my auto mechanic opens up the hood to my car. This also goes for body mechanics, including following dance steps (even the Macarena) and my Pilates instructor at the gym. But I’m an author. My job is to describe the world around my characters. Now to be safe I have been writing mostly in first-person from the lens of a 12 year-old who also would have no idea how to change the oil in the Sienna. However, I’ve decided that I need to branch out so the main character in my current work-in-progress is much more technically inclined and she terrifies me. Her name is Nolie and I won’t say anything more about her because she’s that scary.

But I refuse to let myself linger in my comfort zone. I am determined to not let the tick-tocks, whirrs and clatter of this world scare me. So while I don’t think I’ll become a mechanical whiz any time soon, I’m going to start to pay attention. I pledge not to look away from my Pilates instructor or my auto mechanic and to not put my son’s let’s look inside airplanes book at the bottom of our to-read pile.

So my mission is now clear so it’s time to say goodbye as I’m going to go now. If you hear any sounds coming from my house don’t be alarmed. It’s just me, Hillary, banging out some screeching, bam booming words.

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