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onomatopoeia (ŏn´əmăt´əpē´ə) [Gr.,=word-making], in language, the representation of a sound by an imitation thereof; e.g., the cat mews. Poets often convey the meaning of a verse through its very sound. For example, in "Song of the Lotus-Eaters" Tennyson indicates the slow, sensuous, and langorous life of the Lotus-Eaters by the sound of the words he uses to describe the land in which they live:
Here are cool mosses deep,Onomatopoeia can also represent harsh and unpleasant sounds, as in Browning's "Meeting at Night" :
And through the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match.
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on·o·mat·o·poe·ia / ˌänəˌmatəˈpēə; -ˌmätə-/ • n. the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named (e.g., cuckoo, sizzle). ∎ the use of such words for rhetorical effect. DERIVATIVES: on·o·mat·o·poe·ic / -ˈpē-ik/ or on·o·mat·o·po·et·ic / -pōˈetik/ adj. on·o·mat·o·poe·i·cal·ly / -ˈpē-ik(ə)lē/ or on·o·mat·o·po·et·i·cal·ly / -pōˈetik(ə)lē/ adv.
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Hence onomatopoeic, onomatopoetic XIX.
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Eve Merriam 1964
Eve Merriam was a prolific and talented writer who produced a wide variety of types of literature. She wrote biographies, plays, and fiction for both adults and children. However, she is best known for her poetry. Even as a child, Merriam loved the sound of words and word play. She was taken with many Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and fell in love with their lilting rhythms and lyrics. She brings this love for word play into her own poetry. An excellent example of this occurs in “Onomatopoeia,” a poem from her collection It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme (1964), which is part of a trilogy including There is No Rhyme for Silver (1962) and Catch a Little Rhyme (1966). The titles of these books indicate Merriam’s interest in teaching children about poetry in a lighthearted manner. While not all of the poems in her trilogy deal with a particular aspect of poetry, many do, including “Metaphor,” “A Simile,” “Quatrain,” and “Leaning on a Limerick.” The poem “Onomatopoeia,” like the word itself, deals with words that imitate the sound that they define. Although the poem, and the collection in which it appears, is neatly labeled under children’s poetry, it provides not only children but adults as well with a clear introduction to the terminology and the joy of poetry.
Merriam was born on July 19, 1916, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to parents who had
both been born in Russia. Merriam showed an early interest in poetry, reading the verse column of the Philadelphia Bulletin. She began writing her own poems while she was in elementary school and later contributed poems to high school publications. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937, Merriam moved to New York to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University. She abruptly ended her studies and began working, first as a copywriter and later as a radio writer for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and for other networks. She later worked as the fashion copy editor for Glamour magazine.
Merriam’s first collection of poetry, Family Circle, won the 1946 Yale Younger Poets Prize. Several years later Merriam turned to writing full time. Sixteen years after her debut volume of verse, she published her first book of children’s poetry; it is for this work that she became most recognized. In 1981 Merriam received the National Council of Teachers of English Award for excellence in children’s poetry. Apart from her own literary endeavors, she also taught creative writing at City College of New York.
Merriam died of cancer in April of 1992 in Manhattan, New York.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
One of Merriam’s strongest beliefs concerned the innate love that children have for the rhyme and rhythm of language. In fact, she once said that there were only two rules necessary to introduce a poem to a child: the first was to read it aloud for the idea in the poem; the second was to read it aloud again for the music in the words. This is an ideal way to begin looking at “Onomatopoeia.” Since the whole poem deals with words that imitate sounds, listen to the poem. Throughout it, Merriam will try to recreate for the reader the sound of water coming out of an old, unused, rusty faucet. Spigot is another word for a faucet; Merriam chooses it instead of the more common term “faucet” or the less formal word “tap” because of its alliterative quality. Imagine the sound that the spigot will make when it has been turned on after a long period of not being used.
Merriam first introduces the concept of onomatopoeia in this line, describing the water as it “sputters” out of the faucet. The definition of sputter is to spit out in an explosive manner. When you say the word sputter aloud, the “sp” at the beginning of the word causes you to imitate the sound that an object makes when it sputters. Try saying the word out loud, forcefully. The “p” forces the lips to close fully before they open to complete the word; the sounds that follow the “sp” emerge in a burst of air. In linguistics, this sound is referred to as plosive.
Merriam develops the visual image of the water, as well. Notice how lines 2 through 4 are arranged to look like drops of the poem themselves,
- A filmstrip, and accompanying audio cassette, titled Eve Merriam is part of the “First Choice: Poets and Poetry” series and was released by Pied Piper Productions in 1979.
- Part of the “Profiles In Literature” series, the Eve Merriam video cassette is available from the Department of Educational Media.
- In 1961, the Library of Congress released an audio tape reel, Eve Merriam Reading Her Poems With Comment in the Recording Laboratory, October 19, 1961, as part of its Archives of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
- An audio cassette titled Sharing Poetry With Children, by Eve Merriam is part of the “Prelude Children’s Book Council Mini-Seminars on Using Books Creatively, Series 7” and was released by the Children’s Book Council in 1983.
with lines 2 and 3 only one word each, while line 4 is two words.
While this line rhymes with the lines before and after it, it is not an example of onomatopoeia. The explosive “p” sound is missing. Instead, this is a metaphor comparing the sound of the faucet to human speech. Since utter means to send forth using the voice, this line adds to the impression that the faucet is making sounds as the water drops struggle to emerge. It also is an example of personification, or giving human qualities to inanimate objects.
Merriam returns to her use of onomatopoeia, with this line, as a two-drop splutter comes out of the faucet.
When Merriam indicates that a number of drops come from the faucet, splashing down on the surface below the tap, the words in this line also appear in a group. Spatter, of course, is still another example of onomatopoeia. In this line, however, Merriam adds assonance, using similar vowel sounds in words, as the “u” in the previous lines changes to an “a.”
Use of rhyme is a very important pre-reading and reading skill for young children. Children learn the different phonetic pronunciations connected with both vowels and consonants. The change of sounds that occurs when “sp” is changed to “sm” helps children to learn skills such as blending consonants.
With these lines, Merriam introduces another type of word that is often described as onomatopoetic. In the strictest sense of the word, gash and slash do not belong in this category, since they do not refer to a sound. However, there are groups of words that seem somehow to imitate the action that they describe. For example, many words ending in “ash” or “ush” are associated with hurried or even violent action (for example, dash, thrash, crash, rush, gush, and push). When these words are spoken, the terminal sound is issued forcefully through the teeth. Therefore, they are sometimes considered a type of onomatopoeia.
Merriam appeals to children’s fascination with tongue twisters as lines 7 through 10 provide a miniature example of this form.
In the book It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme, Merriam provides two versions of this poem. The words are exactly the same in each; the only difference is in the arrangement on the page. The second version is a concrete poem, so Merriam tries to fully involve the reader in picturing the drops falling from “the rusty spigot.” “Scatters” and “spurts” each take up a single line in the first version of the poem, like individual drops of water. In the second version of the poem, Merriam has scattered the letters themselves across the page.
Stop is also a word that is often called onomatopoeic because of the “p” sound. The alliteration helps the line flow smoothly.
Merriam definitely creates a sound for us as we hear the water hit the sink (or ground) in full force now. The exclamation point dramatizes this. The reader, like the person who turned on the water, has been anxiously waiting for this moment.
The next two lines will be longer, visually demonstrating that the water is no longer trickling out in drops. Rhyme and assonance connect the words in this line. “Splashes” is a clear example of onomatopoeia, while “gushes” and “rushes” imitate actions, rather than sound.
The final two lines of the poem end Merriam’s picture-poem as the reader sees and hears the water flow. These are the two most regular lines of the poem, in terms of both rhyme and meter. In many ways, they are very close in style to a final couplet, providing an ending to the poem as satisfying as the water that now runs freely from the spigot.
Language and Meaning
Poets try to use words that go beyond their obvious surface meaning in order to connect to people through as many meanings as possible. The words, of course, must have the appropriate definition for whatever the poem is trying to describe— if the poet has in mind a piece of footwear larger than a shoe, then it would be more accurate to call it a boot than a shoe. The accurate, officially recognized meaning of a word, as found in the dictionary, is its denotation. Poetry becomes challenging when poets and readers realize that each word also has several connotations: these are the meanings that are not part of the word’s definition, the associations that it carries with it. For instance, the dictionary might give very similar definitions for “boots” and “galoshes” and “rubbers,” but a poet would not dream of using one word where another belongs. There are several ways that words acquire their connotations. One is the way that the culture uses the word differently through the years. “Crazy,” for instance, used to have a completely negative association when it was used to describe mental fitness, but now it just as often means “fun-loving”; on the other hand, “clever,” which once was a high compliment, is seldom used now except sarcastically.
Another source of a word’s connotation is its sound. To the careful ear of the poet, the sound of
Topics for Further Study
- Come up with onomatopoetic words to describe a process that you are familiar with: use the words in a poem to give your reader the fullest sense of what is going on.
- Try to compose the music that should accompany the reading of this poem, using ordinary household items at the musical instruments.
- Do you think “Onomatopoeia” is a good title for this poem? What does the poet gain from drawing attention to the poetic device she uses? What does she lose?
every word is onomatopoetic: that is, every word sounds something like what it represents. The most obvious examples of this are words like those used in the poem—such as “splutter” and “gushes”— which can, by themselves, bring their meanings to mind. A more subtle use of this principle comes into play when a poet has several similar words from which to choose. “Saunter,” for instance, might be a more specific word that “walk,” but a writer might decide that the less specific word is required, in certain circumstances, if the word’s bluntness fits the tone of the poem better. A word like “galoshes” might not give away the meaning of the word by its sound, the way true onomatopoeia would, but it does have a sound, a silly sound that would skim some seriousness off of the context around it. Poets, and many linguists, believe that the names of actions and things are not just assigned to them or handed down from one generation to the next, but that the sounds the words we use are intrinsically related to what they are trying to say.
In twentieth-century literature and philosophy, absurdity has become an important concept, because it describes the lack of meaning that many modern thinkers consider exemplified in contemporary life. There is another sense of the word, though, that is not as large or grim as its relation to the meaning (or nonmeaning) of life. The prospects for humanity look bleak if life in general is meaningless, but the right amount of absurdity helps to break up the dull monotony of logic and order. Silliness occurs when absurdity is applied to rules. A fair amount of absurdity is used to create the humor in Marx Brothers or Jim Carrey movies, even though they could not be entirely absurd without being just tiresome and confusing. A healthy dose of absurdity is needed for fun, and “Onomatopoeia” is, at its root, silly and fun.
At first glance, the poem appears to be anything but absurd. Not only is the image it presents clear, but the very sounds of the words are harnessed to add to the meaning. The absurd element becomes apparent when the reader sits back and thinks about what is being presented here and what has gone into the presentation. The poem gives a virtuoso performance with words—a verbal ballet—just to describe a common, leaking faucet. The style of the poem is out of sync with the meaning of the words. Like using a three-page-long equation to describe how to make a peanut butter sandwich, like a full symphony orchestra applying decades of classical training to the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” the absurdity of this poem lies in the idea that someone is expending talent where it is not needed. The author does not seem to have spent the extra, unneeded effort foolishly or unknowingly: there is a sense that the poet is in on the fun. Merriam has produced a verbal exercise far greater than is necessary to describe a faucet, a description that has no reason except for the sheer fun of its creation.
Onomatopoeia is defined as words that imitate the sound or action they describe; “buzz” and “coo” are examples. In “Onomatopoeia,” Merriam uses the poem itself to give both a clear auditory and visual illustration of this poetic term. The image and sound Merriam chooses is water coming out of a rusty faucet. The words in the poem will imitate the sounds the water makes, first as it slips out in drops and sputters, and then as it gushes forth in full force.
The key poetic elements in “Onomatopoeia” involve sound. Although there is no formal rhyme scheme, many of the words rhyme: “sputters,” “utters”; “splash,” “gash.” The poem also uses alliteration, words that begin with similar letters, such as “spigot” and “sputters.” Assonance, using similar vowel patterns, is another poetic element Merriam plays with in the poem, as in “water” and “dashes” where the vowels are located in the same places in the two words.
Including articles such as “the” and “a,” the poem has only twenty-nine words. Twenty-four of these words are related by the one or more rhyming elements. One entire group of words begins with “sp”: “sputter, splutter, spatter, splatter, splash, spurt,” and “spigot.” Using rhyme, Merriam changes “spatter” to “scatter” and “smatter,” while “splash” brings “plash, dash” and “gash.” By changing vowels, she turns “gash” to “gush”; changing consonants makes “rush” become “rusty.” Some words are connected by half-rhyme, as in “clear, wider” and “water.” Instead of meter or an established rhythm, Merriam uses shape to control her poem. She tries to create a visual impression of drops of water, as well as an aural one. When the reader looks at the poem, the words drip one by one down the page, occasionally becoming a splutter or scattering of drops.
“Onomatopoeia” was first published in 1964, when the last children of the Baby Boom were becoming old enough to read. The general term “baby boom” is used to describe a surge in the birthrate of a population. In the United States, the Baby Boom refers to the generation born between 1947 and 1961. The country had been experiencing a low birthrate for almost twenty years because of two of the most far-reaching events of the twentieth century: the Great Depression and World War II. Many economic causes converged to throw the country into the depression, but the main one—the one that we mark as the beginning of it all—was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. On that day, investors lost faith in their stocks and started selling at low prices in order to make some money from them; the sell-off, however, created more panic and lower prices still in a vicious cycle throughout the day. Most American investments, tied to the stock market, plummeted in value. Banks that had invested went out of business, and people who had money in the banks lost their savings, leaving them unable to meet their debts. As a result, numerous businesses were forced to close and unemployment rates soared. The United States spent the 1930s trying to rebuild from the depression, particularly with
Compare & Contrast
- 1964: The entire world was stunned by the callousness of citizens of Queens, New York, who watched from windows while Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside of her apartment building. In all, 38 people heard her cries for help, but no one called the policed because they did not want to “get involved.”
Today: Urban crime has decreased, thanks in part to citizens’ watch groups that encourage neighborhood involvement.
- 1964: The Vietnam War escalated after three North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin allegedly fired torpedoes on a U.S. ship in international waters. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving the president new military powers to fight aggression.
Today: Because of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, presidents have—and have taken advantage of—the power to commit troops without congressional approval.
- 1964: The Warren Commission released the report of their investigation of the death of President John F. Kennedy, concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the shooting.
Today: More than seventy percent of Americans think that the Warren Commission was covering up some sort of conspiracy.
the New Deal, which was the name given to the economic policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the event that really revitalized the American economy was the war in Europe, which had been building slowly but then broke out in full force when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Early in the war, the American economy prospered, manufacturing goods that the countries involved in the fighting could not make. This changed in December of 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and brought America into the war. The war lasted until 1945, with sixteen million U.S. men serving. They came home in 1946 to the first stable economy the country had seen in a generation, and, having seen the world and feeling financially secure, they married the girlfriends they had left behind. The Baby Boom began the next year.
The period stretching from the late 1940s to the 1960s are remembered as a time of stability in American society. There were certainly social crises, such as the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, the anti-Communist scare of the early 1950s, and the Civil Rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. There was also low unemployment and a healthy economy. The population rose by 18 percent during the 1950s, marking the sharpest increase since the first decade of the century, but there was one major difference: in 1910, 15 percent of Americans were foreign born, while in 1960 the immigrant population was only 5.5 percent. The swell in the population was due to the babies that were born in that time.
The Baby Boom dried up in the early 1960s for a number of reasons. Cultural changes, such as the youth movement that created the rise of rock and roll, made the stable family life that had encouraged child rearing seem boring. Birth control methods improved. The postwar economic expansion slowed, forcing couples to stop and think seriously about the added expense of children.
In Language Arts, Gina Sloan provides an interesting examination of Merriam’s writing, analyzing her views about children and poetry. Merriam’s main message to children and teachers is that poetry is fun. She felt that it was important for adults to realize that children are fascinated by language. “Poetry’s musical effects of rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration, extensions of children’s own speech, naturally appeal to them.” Her poems attempt to demonstrate the wonderful games that words can play. Merriam believed that poetry must be read aloud to children in order for them to learn to appreciate it. This is so important to Merriam that she wrote several pamphlets to help guide adults and children through the world of poetry.
Sloan traces three main thematic elements in Merriam’s poetry. The first is the use of word play and puzzles, or “kidding around” with language. The second involves the social commentary that appears throughout her work. Merriam found poetry a very effective tool to comment on the problems that children face growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, such as war, the corruption of the environment, poverty, and racism. The last element deals with her desire to convey to children the joy of life and nature.
In Books for the Gifted Child, Barbara Baskin and Karen Harris praise Merriam’s use of language in It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme, describing the collection as an “unrestrained and effervescent compendium of word games in poetic form.” They particularly laud the subtle ways in which she managed to convey sound and imagery to children, noting her effectiveness in teaching both the techniques of poetry and phonics in her work.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright. In this essay, he explores the ways in which a poem such as “Onomatopoeia” is democratic, as opposed to “elitist” poems that sometimes seem to be purposely difficult.
As a poetic device, onomatopoeia has what it takes to hold the attention of a young, unskilled audience: it is self-sufficient. The beauty of the onomatopoetic word is that readers are spared the trouble of knowing the Latin root in order to appreciate its nuances. Words that give up their meaning through their very sound are great for those who would rather avoid the trouble of looking up the dictionary definition.
Merriam’s “Onomatopoeia” is fun because it allows children to use words at their own level— to play and to rhyme and to make believe that words are sounds and sounds are words—and it does so without screaming for attention the way that some poems do, begging readers to find out what they are hiding. I am sure that at the end of a long day of facing unfamiliar ideas, a child is not interested in poetry that raises questions. Most poets don’t mean to be difficult; in fact, most don’t know that they are being difficult, or they think that their difficulty is part of their own particular charm. Think of a painting or a poem or a musical piece that has left you scratching your head, that you just didn’t “get,” and the odds are that the artist feels that their work was accessible to all. He or she was probably just as confounded by the lack of enthusiasm as audiences are by this one person’s artistic “vision.” Artists always expect that the newly finished piece will delight everyone and affect them to the depths of their souls.
In general, poets want to be inclusive, but most readers feel that the obscurity of art means something has eluded them. This isn’t a paranoid assumption; there are certainly things in this world that exist to let some people into the in crowd and to keep some people out. Schools have admissions requirements, employers have experience and education requirements, politicians are screened through the primary elections. It is not too farfetched for readers to assume that language with multiple layers is somebody’s way of separating “poetic” people from the nonpoetic. The thing that makes “Onomatopoeia” an effective children’s poem is that it is nonexclusive. What is the point of this poem? What should a reader take away from the time spent with it? Nothing! That is the beauty of it. The pressure of trying to understand poetry is released, and readers are welcome to like what they find without feeling that they are missing something that almost everyone else knows. The emphasis is on what readers can do and on what they do know. This is bad for literary critics, who aren’t needed to interpret a poem like “Onomatopoeia” because everyone gets it. If every poem contained its meaning within the sounds of the words themselves, there would be no need for analysis, but if every poem were that simple there would be a need for poets to dig deeper, to confront and make use of words with deceptive meanings instead of walking around them.
In its defiance of meaning, “Onomatopoeia” resembles Merriam’s poem “Schenectady,” which was written about the same time. That poem starts, “Although I’ve been to Kankakee / And Kalamazoo and Kokomo / The place I’ve always wanted to go, / The city I’ve always wanted to see / Is Schenectady.” The cities mentioned are in, respectively, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and New York, but it does not matter if the reader knows this. What is important is that the reader knows they are places—a fact that comes out of the context they are used in—and that they are musical, funny words, which anyone can see. The common link between a word like “Schenectady” and a word like “splatters” is that neither follows the dry old rules of verbal genealogy with which even children are too well familiar. Both words show up from somewhere outside the range of customary patterns: “Schenectady” from Native-American roots, which few words in English except place names come from; and “splatters” from “splat,” the sound made in cartoons when something wet hits another object and explodes. Words chosen for their original sound might or might not refer to a hidden level of meaning (in this poem’s case, they don’t), but, in either instance, readers can appreciate them upon first contact.
The strength of “Schenectady,” and the thing that makes it helpful for understanding “Onomatopoeia,” is that it makes no pretense about wanting to accomplish anything more than saying a silly word as often as it can and to say words that rhyme with the silly word:
Yes I want to connect with Schenectady.
The town I select is Schenectady,
I elect to go to Schenectady,
I’ll take any trek to Schenectady,
Even wash my neck for Schenectady,
So expect me next at Schenectady,
Check and double check
In contrast to this, “Onomatopoeia,” based as it is on a literary device, represents high culture. Both poems celebrate the sounds of words, which draw children toward one of the functions of poetry, but “Schenectady” is freer to dance and sing without the encumbrance of meaning.
“Onomatopoeia,” on the other hand, practically preaches in the way that it asks readers to think over the relationship between the physical world and the world of words. “Spatter” and “utter” and “splutter” and “splatter” might be words that mean just what they sound like, but the fact that we even have such words … what does that mean? For children, who are used to understanding the meanings of words from rote memorization, this question can open up a different way of looking at things. It can make them wonder what words and reality have to do with each other, and that can lead to the entomology of the roots of common words and methods that will increase their verbal abilities a hundredfold. Or they may learn a civics
What Do I Read Next?
- The poems of nineteenth-century English poet Edward Lear are remembered for their sense of fun and delight in nonsense. Among his best-known collections are A Book of Nonsense (1846), Nonsense Songs (1871), and Laughable Lyrics (1877).
- Ogden Nash was a droll, witty writer who used clever rhymes and puns. Many of his works appeared in The New Yorker from the 1930s to the 1960s. A good representation of his work is the collection I Wouldn’t Have Missed It: Selected Poems of Ogden Nash, selected by Linell Smith and Isabel Eberstadt and published in 1975.
- One of the most respected poets of the twentieth century was e. e. cummings, whose experimentation with style and syntax of verse resembles the spirit that Merriam tried to give her children’s poetry. Most of his major works are available in Collected Poems of e.e. cummings, published the year after his death, in 1963.
- Eve Merriam is just one of the poets interviewed in Jeffrey S. Copeland’s collection Speaking of Poets: Interviews with Poets Who Write for Children and Young Adults, which was published by the National Council of Teachers of English in 1993. Also included are Lillian Moore, Aileen Fisher, X. J. Kennedy and William Cole.
lesson: that words, like humans, are sometimes drawn from what ordinary people say and do, although most often their meanings come from a mash of tradition, expertise, and invisible forces that are even more mysterious. Ultimately, though, children do not have to make anything out of “Onomatopoeia”: they can just have fun with the unusual sounds because it asks nothing more.
Anyone who has ever lifted a child up to work the buttons at an ATM terminal or has asked a preschooler, “Why do you suppose that is?” knows what it is to introduce the big, complex world to
“In ‘Onomatopoeia,’ Eve Merriam has introduced a concept without forcing anyone to see its serious side, leaving the serious aspect of poetry to be reckoned with another day.”
someone both fascinated and frightened by it. Children will have to know how things, including poetry, work, to prepare for the day they are in charge, but they have plenty of time to learn. In “Onomatopoeia,” Eve Merriam has introduced a concept without forcing anyone to see its serious side, leaving the serious aspect of poetry to be reckoned with another day. As a poetic device, onomatopoeia has few practical applications, and few accomplished poets could say that they thrill to the chance to use it, but its very uselessness accounts for why it is fun.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Sean Robisch teaches composition and literature at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in American literature. In the following essay, Robisch describes how Merriam was an advocate for poetry and, furthermore, language itself.
Eve Merriam might best be thought of as a poetic advocate. For four decades, she has been a voice for the rights and dignity of women. All of her life, she has been a voice for the pleasure that poetry can bring to children. She is, in a very important way, an advocate for the voice itself—a person interested in teaching students from preschool through college how to value words for their intrinsic power. Several years before writing It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme, the collection in which “Onomatopoeia” appears, she had produced After Nora Slammed the Door, a substantial book on feminism in the 1950s and 1960s that used as its principal metaphor a character from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and spoke for the rights of women to speak for themselves. Merriam understood well how literature works on all age groups of readers, and this may be what made her one of the truly passionate writers working to better the human condition.
In the introduction to Man and Woman: The Human Condition, Sister Edwin Mary McBride writes, “After knowing Eve Merriam one is no longer surprised to know that the author of After Nora Slammed the Door, and Catch a Little Rhyme, poems for children, are one and the same.” Merriam’s children’s poetry avoids gender bias as much as does her writing in social criticism. It is democratic in the best sense: accessible to all. She once said that she wrote for the person, rather than for the man or woman, boy or girl. Her writing reminds us that in the most fundamental ways, including an appreciation for the music of words, we humans are very much alike.
Merriam wrote “Onomatopoeia” in 1964, the year I was born. We—the poem and I—are the same age, and it seems worth thinking about that a poem and a person can grow up together. You might consider what poems were written the year you were born that have grown up with you, as a way of understanding that children’s writing does not remain only for children. The stories our parents read to us when we are young will have great value to us in our adulthood. They will remind us that we were once very young and that we may think with childlike pleasure about the physical world as long as we do remember. Eve Merriam was aware of this, and she wrote poems that engage children, so that, as adults, they will continue to be drawn to poetry—partly because they remember fondly the day they first heard it.
Also in 1964, the year It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme first appeared, one of the last publications by e. e. cummings reached the market. Merriam said that she was influenced by William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manly Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. But her attention to sound, to the arrangement of the words on the page, seems very similar to cummings. The poems in many of Merriam’s books are playful, made—almost required, for their full effect—to be read aloud. She also worked out of the tradition of such other modernists as William Carlos Williams and Amy Lowell, who concentrated on the simple image sparsely presented on the page. Just as Williams wrote about a red wheelbarrow, or cummings wrote about a grasshopper, Merriam wrote in “Onomatopoeia” about a rusty spigot—a simple item that produces sounds worth repeating in language and worth making into music.
So what’s the point of reading about a rusty spigot? One anthology of poems, Rhythm Road: Poems to Move To, puts Merriam in the company of cummings, Marianne Moore, Lewis Carroll, Carl Sandburg, and many other great poets as writers who understood a kind of poetry that drew its importance from how an image was presented, as much as from the image itself. In fact, the anthology uses the line “The Rusty Spigot Sputters” as the title for its chapter on television and technology. Marshall McLuhan, a critic who was famous for his work concerning television and technology around the time “Onomatopoeia” appeared, once said that “the medium is the massage”—a play on words meaning that what we see and hear is more than just a message. We are affected by the means by which we see or hear, or even read, something— so much so that our emotions may be changed and our perceptions altered. Perhaps the only reliable way to experience this with “Onomatopoeia” is to read it aloud and let it do what it was designed to do, which is not to languish on a page in silence.
I sometimes give writers in my college classes an assignment they might have been given in the second or third grade: to write about their favorite colors. As a seven–year-old, you might write a certain kind of essay about the color blue; it would be honest, passionate, and based on your experience. You would have blue objects important to you that you could present as a show and tell. Now consider writing the same assignment late in high school or in college. Rather than thinking of it as juvenile and dismissing it, you would want to bring sophistication to the work. You would have the power to write about the color with the vocabulary and added experience of your age. Merriam is after just such a moment—when the adult you remembers what it was like to be the child you. Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner has written that children “are more likely to go around with their hands open than with their fists clenched,” meaning that they are open to the world and all of the things it has to show them. You were once small enough to get close to a sputtering, rusty spigot without having to bend down. And you were probably more likely to pay attention to how it sounded.
In this way, Merriam’s work—like cummings’s or Williams’s or A. A. Milne’s—tempts us to read the poetry as though it is “only” for those who like their poems fun and musical. But perhaps it is also meant to remind us that our efforts at sophistication are still based on the same language that produces words at which small children laugh. Say “Schenectady” or “burghermeister.” Say “perspicacious”
“[Merriam] is, in a very important way, an advocate for the voice itself—a person interested in teaching students from preschool through college how to value words for their intrinsic power.”
over and over until it no longer even sounds like a word. Merriam has said in an interview that she finds poetry criticism too often to be impersonal, clinical, and detached from the poem’s voice. She wants poetry to reach children’s ears and bodies before it is vivisected by their teachers. This way, they will grow up passionate about language and may work toward developing strength in their own voices. To act as an advocate for others ultimately means to empower them, and even (maybe especially) through the simplest of images and most humorous of sounds, Eve Merriam did this for her readers. She got at what she called, at the end of It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme, “the quiddity of you and me.”
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris, Books for the Gifted Child, Bowker, 1980, pp. 192-95.
Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Copeland, Jeffrey S., Speaking of Poets: Interviews with Poets Who Write for Children and Young Adults, Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage, New York: Random House, 1967.
Merriam, Eve, After Nora Slammed the Door: American Women in the 1960s: The Unfinished Revolution, Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Co., 1958.
Merriam, Eve, It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme, New York: Atheneum, 1965.
Merriam, Eve, Man and Woman: The Human Condition, Denver, CO: The Research Center on Woman, 1968.
Merriam, Eve, “Out Loud: Centering the Narrator in Sound,” in The Voice of the Narrator in Children’s Literature, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, New York: Greenwood, 1989, pp. 231-51.
Morrison, Lillian, Rhythm Road: Poems To Move To, New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, 1988.
Sloan, Gina, “Profile: Eve Merriam,” Language Arts, No. 58, November-December, 1981, pp. 957-64.
Bettelheim, Bruno, and Karen Zahn, On Learning to Read: The Child’s Fascination with Meaning, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
One of the most well-known and well-respected child psychologists of modern times, Bettelheim examines the urge to read as an almost magical fascination.
Goodman, Kenneth, What’s Whole in Whole Language? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.
Goodman is one of the driving forces in the Whole Language movement and one of the leading supporters of the use of good literature in the teaching of reading.
Kennedy, X. J., and Dorothy M. Kennedy, Talking Like the Rain, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1992.
The sampling of poems in this anthology captures the spirit of Merriam’s, with a slightly more contemporary twist.
Sloan, Gina, “Profile: Eve Merriam,” Language Arts, No. 58, November-December 1981, pp. 957-64.
This is one of the few good background studies of the poet available.
"Onomatopoeia." Poetry for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/onomatopoeia
"Onomatopoeia." Poetry for Students. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/onomatopoeia