Over the centuries, linguists have put forward dozens of different theories attempting to explain how human speech—developed long before written language ever appeared—first came into existence. One is the Bow Wow Theory, which postulates that speech originally evolved out of early speakers imitating the sounds made by the things around them. All human language, the theory claims, is therefore supposed to have sprung out of a few basic onomatopoeic words.
This theory, which has its origins as far back as the 18th century, is largely discredited today—not least because not everything that these early speakers would have presumably had a word for, like the sky and the Sun and the Moon, has an obvious sound associated with it. But it’s nevertheless an interesting idea, and one that’s not entirely without compelling evidence. While it’s easy to think of onomatopoeic words as only so-called “sound words” like pop, crash, boom and bang, there are in fact some seemingly ordinary English words that have echoic and imitative etymologies behind them, many of which stretch back to the very earliest origins of modern language.
There’s no record of what the Old English word for cough was, but etymologists agree that it probably has its origins in an ancient Germanic word, along the lines of kokh or korkh (pronounced with the same harsh sound at the end as Bach or loch), which was presumably meant to echo the sound of someone clearing their throat.
Owl was ule (pronounced “ooh-leh”) in Old English, and it’s that long oo sound at the beginning that suggests the owl’s name was probably originally meant to imitate its hoot. Other birds with onomatopoeic names? The rook, the cuckoo, the chickadee, the hoopoe, the whippoorwill, the killdeer, the bobwhite, and…
3. TURTLE DOVE
The turtle of turtle dove has nothing to do with marine reptiles, and everything to do with the cooing noise the birds make. It’s a derivative of the doves’ Latin name, turtur, which was meant to represent their call.
Dozens of words describing different kinds of laughter—like guffaw, giggle, snicker, cackle and (Lewis Carroll’s invention) chortle are onomatopoeic, but most etymologists agree that the word laugh itself is also probably representative of the sound of laughter.
It’s apparently a particularly ancient formation too. The similarities between the words for laugh in languages as diverse as English, Icelandic (hjæla), Ancient Gothic (hlahjan) and even Sanskrit (kakhati) suggest that laugh might even have Proto-Indo-European roots.
English speakers have been using the French borrowing fanfare to refer to a brassy, flourishing tune since the early 1600s. Although its exact etymology is disputed, both of its two likeliest origins are onomatopoeic—the old French verb fanfarer, meaning “to play a fanfare”, was perhaps meant to represent the sound of the flourish itself, and, alternatively, the Arabic word farfar, meaning “chatterer” or “gossiper,” which was meant to replicate the sound of prattling conversation.
No one is quite sure where the word moan came from, and given that its earliest meaning seems to have been something general, like “lamentation” or “sorrow,” it’s possible that it’s derived from the same root as mean. An alternative theory, however, suggests that it’s an echoic word somehow meant to represent the sound of moaning in pain or anguish.
Old English had two words for the flitting about of birds in trees, namely flicker and flacker. Only one has survived through to modern English, however, but both are apparently meant to replicate the swift flittering sound of a bird’s wings. The use of flicker to refer to a dwindling or twinkling light is a more recent metaphorical development, dating back to the early 1600s.
Merriam-Webster has traced the earliest record of the word didgeridoo back to 1919. That might seem a relatively recent date given how ancient an instrument it is, but that’s because the name didgeridoo is likely a Western invention, coined by English-speaking (or perhaps Irish-speaking) Australian explorers and settlers sometime around the turn of the century, meaning it’s presumably a representation of the instrument’s bizarre resonating sound. The name didgeridoo apparently isn't used in any of Australia’s Aboriginal languages, all of which have their own words instead.
Borrowed into English from Spanish in the 16th century, the word mosquito has its origins in the Latin word for a fly, mosca, which is in turn thought to derive from another ancient Proto-Indo-European root, mu– or mus–. Some etymologists have suggested that this root might originally have been intended to represent the droning or buzzing mmm sound of flies and other insects, and point to the initial m– sound that found its way not only into Latin but into languages like Sanskrit, Greek, and English (in the word midge) as evidence.
In English, we use putsch to mean a sudden attempt to take control. In its native German, however, Putsch was originally a local Swiss word for a strong hit or thrust—in which case it’s thought to have originally meant to imitate the sound of a sudden, powerful punch.
The name fritillary derives from the Latin word for a dice-box, fritillus. The heads of fritillary flowers apparently resemble upturned cups similar to those used to shake up dice, and the checkered markings of fritillary butterflies apparently resemble the checkered ink-spot patterns once used to decorate the insides of gaming boxes. The Latin fritillus itself, however, is thought to be an onomatopoeic invention, meant to recreate the sound of dice being shook and rattled together.
Some etymologists believe pebble comes from papula, a Latin word for a small spot or pustule on the skin, but others suggest it could be an echoic word meant somehow to recreate the babbling sound of the streams in which pebbles are often found, or the rippling sound a stone makes when dropped in water.
Borborygm or borborygmus is the medical name for a stomach rumble. It’s a derivative of the Greek word borborygmos, which was apparently invented to imitate the same sound.
The Orkney archipelago off the far northeast coast of Scotland was originally known as Orcas, which is thought either to derive from orc, a local Pictish Scots word for a wild boar, or orkn, an Old Norse word for a seal. Either way, both were probably originally intended to represent the sounds made by their respective animals.
We might now use it loosely to refer to any liar or impostor, but a charlatan was originally specifically an itinerant street vendor of quack medicines and other supposed cure-all products, who would, according to the OED, “descant volubly to a crowd in the street.” In this sense, charlatan derives via French from the Italian word ciarla, meaning “to prattle” or “to chatter senselessly”—and which, like the words prattle and chatter themselves, is meant to represent the sound of gossiping, babbling talk.