Biff! Bam! Pow!

Being comfortable with multi-syllable English words comes with the territory for me. My birth “territory” being Indianapolis, I was born in a city that has at least as many syllables as any other American city. I was tempted to write “more syllables than any other,” but I suspect there might be a smarty-pants Floridian reading this who would prove me wrong before I could say “Apalachicola.”

In any case, I have always been partial to long, difficult-to-pronounce words, so I was especially alert in my seventh-grade English class when Mr. Weeks, my all-time favorite English teacher, announced that he wanted us to learn how to pronounce and spell a doozie of a noun: onomatopoeia. I’m betting many of you also remember that term as the longest and most peculiar vocabulary word you were forced to learn in your junior high school English class. 

 At the time, we were studying a unit on poetry, so this peculiar vocabulary word proved to be useful. I’m also betting that those of you reading this who never went on to teach English (bless your hearts, poor dears) still might vaguely remember that “onomatopoeia” is defined as any word whose sound is as identical as possible to what it is naming. The most famous examples are probably SIZZLE or, better yet, CUCKOO. I myself am rather partial to BOING and PITTER-PAT. 

And whereas Mr. Weeks is my all-time favorite English teacher, my all-time favorite example of onomatopoeia is WHIZZ-BANG because it was created by…wait for it… my all-time favorite author, Charles Dickens. It is first used in an early chapter of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, when he accurately describes the sound of a gunshot. So perfect was his newly coined word that it soon would be added to the dictionary as a vivid colloquial adjective meaning either “very rapid” or “booming.” In short, Dickens’ neologism almost immediately became a whizz-bang success.  

And being a typical seventh-grade boy, I was especially delighted when Mr. Weeks told us how to pronounce “onomatopoeia”: “ahna-mahna-PEE-yuh.” Let’s face it: any newfangled word that has its one stressed syllable on PEE is going to tickle the pathetic funny bone of an immature male whose sophistication level in humor barely rose to that of the bathroom variety. I still blush when I recall back then how gleefully I told people: “I can spell PNEUMONIA: p-n-e-u-m-o-n-i-a. The P is silent, as it is in a swimming pool!” Well, I don’t actually blush now. But I should. 

As I was writing this essay, it struck me that we owe so many onomatopoeic words to our friends in the animal kingdom: meow, bark, peep, hiss, cockadoodledoo, roar, moo, oink, chirp, quack. And who of us did not sit on a mother’s, father’s, or babysitter’s lap turning those animal book pages while happily answering those full-of-fun questions: “What sound does the cow make? What sound does the piggy make?”

And I was also struck by the fact that some words that are exclusively American were invented to sound more like we speak over here, as opposed to British English. I remember reading in some Dickens novel the description of a winning racehorse as a “daisy.” What? How could a horse be a flower? After some research in The Oxford English Dictionary, I discovered that nineteenth-century Brits coined the term “daisy” to mean “anything perfect in its own way.” 

But by the 1920’s, we Americans thought that using the term “daisy” in that way sounded a bit effete and pretentious — in other words, too preciously British. But we liked the concept of the term, so we onomatopoeically came up with a new word, nothing more than a new pronunciation for “daisy” that sounded all jazzy and cool and therefore all-American. Now when we described an American racehorse, as perfect in its own way as the British one, it was no longer a real daisy; instead, it was a real “doozie”— just as I used it in the second paragraph above. 

Fortunately, we Americans knew when to ditch the “doozie” and retain the original word. Can you think of anything less romantic than opening that famous early twentieth-century barbershop quartet song — A Bicycle Built For Two — with:

“Doozie, Doozie, give me your answer do”?  

Me either. 


Elliot writes: I thought you all might enjoy this one-man (!) barbershop quartet version of  “A Bicycle Built For Two.” The actual title of the song was “Daisy Bell.” But I’m glad that, in the court of popular opinion, “Daisy Bell” was the loser and “Bicycle Built For Two” was the… Schwinn-er.*

*(Darian made me write that)

**(Darian here: don't believe him. He's trying to pass his bad puns off on me) 

Click below to enjoy the song:

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