Toora Loora

Teaching poetic techniques is such a challenge. By college, most students know about “alliteration” and “assonance” and have filed that knowledge away in the “Never Ever Going To Use This” part of their brains. But they do perk up slightly when I remind them about Onomatopoeia, that Greek gulp of six syllables that simply means “a word that sounds like what it is naming.”

I’ve always taken pleasure in “pitter-patter”, “boing”, “moo”, and “zap.” And who wouldn’t agree that “Listen to that steak SIZZLE on the grill” is perfect to our ear in a way that “Listen to that steak HOGWART on the grill” just isn’t. 

But my favorite onomatopoetic word just might be “lullaby.” Even for those who don’t speak English, if they would ever pronounce that lovely word, I’m betting that they just might envision a baby listening to a mother’s lulling tune. Who isn’t familiar with Brahms’ classic “Lullaby and Goodnight” (Dah dah DAH, dah dah DAH —well, you know). Oddly, when non-English speakers were asked to listen and then rank hundreds of our words and phrases to select comforting, lullaby-type sounds, their number-one choice for the most audible pleasure was “cellar door.” Go figure. 

My parents were not lullaby-ers by nature. Not one of the Engel family could pick up, let alone carry, a tune. Listening to us croon was not a Von Trapp experience; it was rather a Feelng Trapped one. And being Jewish, we didn’t have one special Hebrew lullaby. The one I remember hearing sung to me as a wee one had a haunting yet soothing melody, but the Hebrew lyrics sounded downright martial: 

“Hee-Nay Mah-Tove Ooo-Mah Nye-Yim

Shevitt Ach-Keem Gam-Yah-Chhahd.”

Unfortunately, Hebrew rivals German for guttural sounds. 

The song is actually from Psalm 133 in which David praises how lovely it is when brothers and sisters live together in harmony. That was a bit of a pipe dream in our home, but also a worthy goal that my sister and I occasionally achieved.

And so it was a revelation to me at about age twelve when my dad called me into the den to watch an old favorite movie of his on television. It was “Going My Way,” and in it I heard Bing Crosby croon “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” a gorgeous Irish lullaby. This song had my Hebrew lullaby beat by a mile:

 “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral

 Too Ra Loo Ra Rye

 Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral

 Hush now don’t you cry.”

“Too Ra Loo Ra” is the ultimate onomatopoetic pacifier. The genius of it was that the lyricist (James Royce Shannon) didn’t have to use many actual words; instead he invented words that were simple, lulling sounds.

Or I thought he invented them. But when I first read Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as an undergraduate, I came across a song in Act Four with the line “the lark that tirra lirra chants.“ “Aha!” I exclaimed to myself, onomatopoetically. I still enjoy an “Aha!” moment now and then; I’ve always been wary of people who cry out “Eureka!” to themselves. 

So it was Shakespeare, not Shannon, who had first transcribed the warbling, trilling sound of a lark into the lovely “tirra lirra.” Shannon would then “Irishize” — not to be confused with those smiling ‘Irish-eyes’ — the pronunciation into the deep-voweled Celtic brogue: “Toora Loora.” 

Speaking of brogues, the English are terribly snooty about labeling both the Scottish and Irish accents as “brogues,” which literally means rough shoes of untanned leather. They’re implying that their fellow UK members not only speak as if they had a foot in their mouth but a foot wearing a coarse shoe! 

After hearing the Crosby song, I saved up my allowance, and at age thirteen I bought a Kelly green music box that played “Toora Loora.” I am quite sure that I was the only Bar Mitzvah boy in history who nervously practiced chanting his assigned portion of the Torah in the evening and then was lulled to sleep at night by that charming Irish lullaby. 


Elliot says: "Write to me about your lullaby memories from childhood or parenthood. You can count on my writing you back — but not at such length that I’ll put you to sleep."

Email Elliot at or click here


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