I have a long lasting memory of when I was around six years old. My brother was five. At the time, we shared a room and on one particular night after my mother had put us to bed, we were too hyped up to sleep. We tired ourselves out by jumping from one bed to other and back again, making ourselves giddy. One of us thought it would be a great idea to say rude words every time we made a jump.
When you’re five and six years old, the word ‘rude’ is relative. I recall that we were fairly hung up on anything that pertained to poo (if that’s too colloquially English, then faeces, excrement, or even shit!). We didn’t know the words that are widely used now, words such as crap and shit. Our little lexicon was innocent and naïve. What sent us both into a paroxysm of giggles was the word ‘plop’, used as a noun. The reason … forgive me for being crude, but that’s how the mind of a six year old works, … was that the sound created by saying the word, resembled the sound created when one did a ‘plop’! It tells you how juvenile I can be when I confess that it still makes me laugh!
One of the things that most fascinates me is how well certain words fit a sound or describe a smell. The term for a word that matches its sound is a fabulous word: Onomatopœia. I could say it over and over again! It could almost be a jingle in a nursery rhyme – Ona Mata Paya!
What seems to be most bizarre, is that different languages come up with different onomatopœia to describe the same sound. Does a barking dog sound different in England than in France or elsewhere? You’d think not but strangely, the words assigned to the sound are vastly different. In English, we’re used to telling children that a dog says ‘woof woof’ or even ‘bow wow’. There’s even ‘arf-arf’ and ‘ruff ruff’. Russian dogs say ‘gaf-gaf’ and in Japan it’s ‘wan-wan’. As a writer, I’m probably more likely to use ‘ruff-ruff’ if I was describing a large dog and ‘bow wow’ for a smaller toy dog.
The same aural differences apply to sounds for cars, metal, expressions of pain, speed and so on. Each language has developed it’s own version of expressing these sounds.
The description of smell doesn’t have a fancy word; these words are adjectives. Used cleverly, adjectives create atmosphere and bring forth sensation to the reader. ‘The dank cellar’ calls to mind a damp and smelly place, at least in my mind. The word ‘metallic’ seems to make a hard, precise sound and ‘peppery’ pops over the lips as the word is formed, exactly as something spicy would feel.
The subtle use of language can envelop the reader and place them in right in the heart of a story, engrossing and involving them in the tale. When this happens, you know you’re reading good writing, which is what all writers aspire to.