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Fnarr fnarr, phwoah, and mwah

Taking a first glance at a list of recent additions to a dictionary, most of us will instinctively seek out the very new. Sometimes it’s their simple sparkle of novelty that attracts – the latest updates to Oxford Dictionaries Online include ‘upcycling’, ‘surveilling’ and ‘wantaway’; others engage through the picture they give of the world they sprang from – like ‘scareware’, ‘silent disco’, and ‘top kill’.

This time, though, the item that struck me most on the list is neither new, nor pinpointed in time. ‘Fnarr fnarr’, that two-word deliverer of sniggering, usually at some piece of sexual innuendo, got me thinking about words born through sound association, and their often overlooked power in our language.

A 16th century writer defined onomatopoeia as being ‘when we invent, devise, fayne, and make a name imitating the sound of that it signifieth’. Countdown viewers may groan at the inclusion of ‘phwoah’ in the Oxford Dictionary, but in that single fruity utterance sits an entire social history of wolf-whistling and tabloid headlines. The same pithiness applies to ‘ka-ching’ (the ‘get in’ sound of the cash register), ‘mwah’ (air-kissing), ‘meh’ (what better way to express a verbal shrug), and ‘nom nom’ (the full-mouthed pleasure of eating).

Less controversial examples can be found on every dictionary page or screen – bomb, splodge, cough, splash, didgeridoo, blurb – the list is long and its candidates are surely amongst the most pleasurable in English. As the novelist Bernice Rubens once put it: ‘the acid test of a good word…. is that it must make one’s ears water’.

Some onomatopoeic terms that have slipped from the language offer a glimpse of our past pursuits – a ‘whuz’, first recorded in the early 1400s, was a falconer’s term for ‘the fluttering of Partridges and Pheasants as they rife’. The ‘tweets’ of 15th century birds have been borrowed, of course, for today’s social posts, but the evocation of sound is consistent for both: short bursts of simple chatter that are entirely of the moment.

For lexicographers, words that evoke their sense through sound offer one more charm: you can see, or rather hear, exactly how they came into being, a luxury rarely afforded by the latest buzzwords, which seem to appear out of thin (and almost always virtual) air.

However much I seek them out, and for all their brazen brilliance, new words aren’t always where it’s at. And to anyone who would dismiss ‘fnarr fnarr’ as an illegitimate addition to any dictionary: Pah.