Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


AN ONOMATOPOEIC word is one that sounds like its meaning: Bang! Ring, ring. Meow. Some are cross-cultural; others are not. Some have been around a long time; others are only recently coined. To me, they’re all good fun.

For instance, a cow says moo in a surprising number of languages besides English: Arabic, French, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Tagalog. Czech and Dutch cows replace the m with a b: bůů and boe, respectively.


Only for English, Indonesian and Thai speakers do clocks go tick tock. Many of the world’s clocks, including those in Italy, go tic tac.


Silent clocks are advertised in an Italian shop window. Image by Dvortygirl.

By the way, John Dowdeswell of Brooklands Books showed me how to align a classic railway clock by listening carefully to its sound: tick tock when it’s properly vertical; tick tick, tock tock, or tock tick otherwise.


English guns go bang!, as do Italian, Korean and Persian firearms. French ones go pan! Greek guns, especially when described by kids, apparently ricochet: piu-piu.


Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971.

According to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, bangue dates from the 16th century with the original meaning of thrashing or striking violently. The OED cites a gun reference arising much later, in 1840.


Dictionary of Archaic Words, by James Orchard Halliwell, Bracken Books, 1989.

My Dictionary of Archaic Words cites an original meaning for bang as “going with rapidity,” especially when uttered by one from the English North West. In Brit slang today, “What’s he banging on about?” Also, to those of Suffolk in the East of England, a bang is a hard cheese made of milk several times skimmed.

Plenty of telephones go ring, ring (including renderings in Catalan, English and Swedish). Other choices range from Bulgaria’s zan, zan to Germany’s klingeling to Italy’s drin, drin to Turkey’s zir, zir. And, of course, not all telephones make the same sound anyway.

Ditto siren wails. The traditional European varieties get described by the English nee-naw, nee-naw or the Dutch taatuu-taatuu. I believe a French siren makes a similar sound, and en français it’s rendered as pin-pon. North American sirens make completely different sounds, to me more difficult to mimic: rirarra. What sound do you hear?

Motorheads around the world show a lot of uniformity in their describing engine sounds: Vroom, vroom and bruum, bruum appear in Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Swedish and (curiously, for trucks only) Turkish. Turkish cars go han, han.

To conclude on a non-linguistic note, there’s an interesting contrast of auto enthusiasts when they’re describing steering maneuvers, especially those done in sporting manner.

North Americans and those from Northern Europe tend to hold the hands, loosely gripped, palms inward, at roughly 9- and 3-o’clock. Arms are extended a bit and maneuvers are mimed with the hands holding these positions on the imaginary steering wheel.

By contrast, those from Southern Europe, especially Italians, are more likely to describe the activity by gripping the imaginary steering wheel at perhaps 7 and 5, palms rotated slightly, wrists closer to the body, the steering wheel shuffled between the hands.

Funny thing, when I’m in an Italian car, I tend to drive it that way too. The rest of the time, my Bondurant training (class of 1979) prevails. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, Simanaitis, 2015

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2015 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .
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