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Whether it's the "Pow!" of Batman punching somebody in the face or the "Whop!" of somebody punching Batman in the face, onomatopoeias are everywhere in our culture. They're a fundamental building block of all language, and it's easy to see why: Simply transcribing a sound is the most straightforward, logical way to coin a new word for an unfamiliar thing. But sound and transcription are both very subjective things, so for every blockbuster classic like "bonk," there are 10 more words you use every day that you had no idea were onomatopoeias, because, well, they're kind of dumb. Kind of dumb like these!

10
Cliche

What it means:

A trite and overused phrase. Like "A dark and stormy night" or "Time heals all wounds" or "Did you drink all my nail polisher remover?"

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

The forging of a metal printing press plate.

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Above: Either a printing press or some form of ancient torture device.

Huh?

The word "cliche" doesn't derive from any Latin word or even any prior French word. Actually, as legend has it, a group of printers back in 1800s France got the idea to save time by forging common phrases onto a single plate instead of writing out every line of text word-by-word. In English, these plates are referred to as stereotypes.

Wikipedia
"Cliche" is the word you hallucinate when you sleep with too many people's wives and disparage their countries, France.

So when you utter a cliche, you're saying something that is so unoriginal that there's actually a prepared mold to represent it. And when you unjustly "stereotype" a person or race, what you're really doing is "forging them onto a French printing press plate." You monster.

9
Blimp

What it means:

A big ol' balloon. People ride in it. Mostly just mustachioed villains these days.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

Someone slapping the outside of a fully-inflated dirigible.

Huh?

What most people know as a blimp is more technically (correctly) known as a dirigible, or a non-rigid airship. The word "blimp" only came about in 1915, when Lt. A.D. Cunningham of the British Royal Navy Air Service decided to strike the side of a royal airship with his thumb, and it made a sound that he interpreted as "blimp." Which was a pretty ballsy move, considering how fragile dirigibles were back in the day.

Wikipedia
"Oh my God. Oh Jesus, I only tapped it. I'm so sorry."

Cunningham liked the sound so much that he repeated it incessantly. Inexplicably, his Royal Navy Air buddies were so entertained by Cunningham's insane mutterings that they repeated the story to other officers, instead of drowning him in unsalted water, as British Maritime Law demands.

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8
Sneeze

What it means:

That thing you do where part of your soul escapes through your nose.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

A person sneezing. Imagine that.

Huh?

You're an Anglo-Saxon. It's the eighth century. You have swords and ships and mead and like, no regard for the sanctity of consonants. If somebody sneezed, how would you transcribe the sound?

Wikipedia
Fjord?

You have to use an "S" or two in the word, sure, but otherwise -- fuck it. You're a damn Viking. Somebody's gonna correct your spelling? Do something crazy. Put some "F"s in there. Yeah, like, right next to some "N"s. Just to see if anybody says anything, so you can bash their face in for it.

That's how we got the early words "fneosan" and "fnese."

Wikipedia
"Fneosan! What? SAY SOMETHING, BITCH."

Unfortunately, history's pansies won out in the end and messed up one of language's greatest onomatopoeias. On early Old English manuscripts, an "F" looked very similar to an "S," and since the "FN" phoneme was too balls-in-your-eye awesome for the average reader, they assumed that "fneosan" and "fnese" were "sneosan" and "snese." Eventually, the word modernized, and became the present-day "sneeze."

And now nobody's face gets bashed in at all.

We call this progress?

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Society went to hell as soon as people stopped carrying axes on a daily basis.

7
Laugh

What it means:

To express amusement vocally. Hopefully you are familiar with this term, otherwise you likely find this article every bit as confusing as you do infuriating.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

A person actually laughing. Like this: "What a good joke you have just told: I too disrespect the Nordic peoples! Laughlaughlaugh."

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Apparently "NORDIC" is the sound your hand makes when striking someone's sarcastic little face.

Huh?

Around the fifth century, early Europeans used the word "hlaehhan" to indicate laughter. It was pure and logical onomatopoeia: Crash some Old English throat abuse into the nasally intoned "ha ha" from The Simpsons' Nelson Muntz, and you've got a pretty good idea what early European merriment sounded like. But the word went through so many abbreviations and modernizations over the years -- mostly to remove all the superfluous letters and to not sound quite so much like Fran Drescher being put in a choke hold -- that its modern form, "laugh," is now practically unrecognizable.

Later in 1720, the Scots found themselves in a similar predicament, when the modern "laugh" onomatopoeia didn't quite capture the spirit of a hearty Scottish chortle. To remedy this problem, they created the word guffaw, and were quickly and brutally subjugated by the English for their grammatical heresy.

Wikipedia
Oh look, there's even a chart to depict the joyful act of laug -- arrgh kill it!

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6
Bumblebee

What it means:

A fuzzy and/or wuzzy insect. Possibly named Christopher the Bee.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

Buzzing.

Huh?

Before it became known as the bumblebee, nature's Augustus Gloop was referred to as either the humblebee or the dumbledor, because of its modest nature and wizardly powers (?). In the early 1500s, a poet decided to mix things up and use the Middle English word "bombyll" in his poem, because mo-fo's back in the 1-5s straight didn't give a f...olly. But in actuality, all three of these prefixes -- "humble," "dumble" and "bombyll" -- were attempting to imitate the buzz of a bee.

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This is all a trick by the bees to make them sound adorable.

For those wondering why J.K. Rowling decided to name a main character in the Harry Potter novels after an archaic word for bumblebee, she once explained she "imagined him walking around humming to himself a lot." She settled on "Dumbledor" because "Professor Whackjob" was a little unflattering, and "Professor Hummingbird" apparently made him sound like too much of a hippie.

5
Ping-Pong

What it means:

Table tennis. Just like regular tennis, but for the lazy and/or drunk.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

A hollow ball hitting parchment paddles.

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Which is weird, as we hear at least one smash and a scream whenever we play.

Huh?

Ping-Pong originated in Victorian England in the late 1800s, but it wasn't called Ping-Pong back then. It was called table tennis or lawn tennis, and it was played almost exclusively as a parlor game by people rich enough to know what a parlor is. The paddles weren't solid blocks of wood, like today; they were made of parchment stretched across frames, kind of like mini drums. Because various types of parchment and frame shapes lent each paddle a different sound, several onomatopoeias sprouted up: "Whiff-waff," "pom-pom," "pim-pam," and of course "ping-pong." Ping-Pong -- along with table tennis -- became the preferred name for the sport, presumably once people grew tired of the spontaneous and impromptu beatings that occurred every time the phrase "Fancy a round of pim-pam?" was spoken aloud.

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4
Poop

What it means:

To defecate.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

The sound of a horn. Get all of your "butt trumpet" jokes out of the way now, people.

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We're, ah ... actually drawing a blank here. Shit. Hey, there we go!

Huh?

In the late 14th century, people began using the word "poop" to mimic the sound of a horn being played. In 1721, after many years of intense, studious investigation, humanity discovered that when a person farts, it kind of sounds like a toot on some varieties of horn, maybe. In dire need of fart synonyms, "poop" was appropriated to refer to flatulence. In 1744 -- only 23 years later -- "poop" expanded into the lucrative shit-meaning business, and history was made.

Wikipedia
Also France declared war on Britain, but no, poop was where it was at.

One more time, for posterity: Poop.

Hehe.

3
Buffoon

What it means:

A stupid person; what a disappointed grandfather would call his Internet comedian grandson. Theoretically.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

A person puffing out his cheeks.

Huh?

Buffoon started out as a type of dance in 1540. In 1580, it came to describe the clown -- the jerk, the asshole, the idiot, the ... comedian -- who typically did the dance. The word originally comes from the Italian "buffare," which is supposed to represent the sound of someone puffing out their cheeks. This was a comic gesture at the time, because it made the person doing it look foolish.

Wikipedia
Otherwise we couldn't tell whether they were supposed to look ridiculous or not.

Jesus.

Thank God comedy has evolved so much since then, right? We've really turned it into an art form, with vast and sophisticated audiences ready to heap their praise only on the most noble of wordsmiths, who educate even as they entertain.

Poop.

Hehehe.

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2
Owl

What it means:

A nocturnal bird. It eats mice, it doesn't have a neck, its head does that creepy Exorcist swivel thing? You know, it's like an ... it's like an owl, man. Dang. Describing things in abstract is hard.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

The hoot of said owl.

Huh?

This is another case of a word slowly losing its imitative origins through shortening and modernization. "Owl" originally comes from the Pre-Germanic word "uwwa," which was indeed pretty close to an owl's cry.

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It also sounds like it's slightly hungover, and we do claim to be experts in this field.

Cool. We're on board. Count us in.

But then some Old English asshole came along and added a suffix for no good reason, giving us the word "uwwalon," because he just had to show everybody how much more suave and articulate his bird noises were. Through abbreviation and phonetic spelling, we eventually wound up with the modern "owl," which doesn't sound like an owl at all.

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It sounds like a dying giraffe. No, no, remember: Experts.

If you do spot a nocturnal predator and it says "Owl, owl, owl," just turn and run as fast as you can. That is a criminal with poor impersonation skills trying to fool you.

1
Marauder

What it means:

A person who roams around searching for things to raid and steal. Those guys from Mad Max and your stoner roommate spring immediately to mind.

What the hell is it supposed to sound like?

A cat's meow.

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After it has been hit by a brick, fallen off a fence and been shanghaied into the navy.

Huh?

"Marauder" didn't mean "roving plunderer" until sometime in the early 1700s. Originally, it was the dialectal French word "maraud," which was intended to mimic the sound of a cat -- more specifically, a horny tomcat. So it does make a kind of sense that the word became synonymous with somebody out late at night, looking for trouble. For a long time, "maraud" was only the French word for "prowler," but some claim it entered international parlance during the Thirty Years' War, when it gained popularity as a pun on the imperialist general Count Marode's name. His men -- known as the Marode Brothers -- were so ruthless, cowardly and vile that they may as well have been criminals, and so came to be referred to as marauders.

Wikipedia
Well, it's kind of funny, but surely "Murdering Kill Squad" would have warned people a little better.

They were awful and vicious, you see, so there was some ironic appeal to naming them essentially "the kittens." It's like calling a big man "tiny" or, more accurately, it's like calling "rapist murdering war criminals" a bunch of "sexy cats."

Andy Kneis is a writer, comedian and creator of things.

For more language lessons they won't teach you in school, check out 8 Racist Words You Use Every Day and 9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think.

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