Saturday, 16 January 2016


I wonder how you react to wasps?  Is it argh, or ugh, or eek?  Maybe grrr... or even, if you're unlucky, ouch!  It's unlikely to be tee hee, or sigh..., though it might occasionally be aha! followed by splat!  I only really mention the wasps because that's what I'm playing with at the moment; what I'm actually talking about are those onomatopoeic "words" we use in print to represent the sounds associated with particular feelings or incidents.  Is there a word for these?  If there is, I'm not aware of it.  I know, tsk, tsk.  They're a sort of typographic precursor of emoticons, sound-effect surrogates for non-verbal exclamations and actions.

We first come across these as children, reading comics.  I can remember running around the school playground with my coat-tails held out like aeroplane wings screaming "Eeeeow! Ker-blam!", or firing my six-shooter fingers, "pow!  pow!"  Never "bang! bang!", obviously: that would just be silly.  I can also remember wondering whether aieee!banzai!, or Kamerad! were mere foreign-language cries of pain or triumph, or something more. Quite often, we have no idea what actual real-world sounds these formulae are intended to correspond to, so they then feed back into the language in their written form.  Eventually, the smarter kids see the amusing side of all this.  It's a sort of trainer-wheels irony: when you first learn to say "argh!" (as opposed to making whatever noise "argh" is supposed to be) you are announcing, "I know there is a difference between art and life, and I revel in it".

Other bizarrely literal noises are available, of course.  I wonder if "hurrah!" and "hooray!" have undergone a similar transformative journey from life to print and back again?  There used to be a moment of weirdness at the end of inter-school rugby and hockey matches, made especially strange when the match had been an ill-tempered and occasionally violent affair. The captain was obliged to shout, "Three cheers for Scumbag Grammar! Hip hip!", and the team was meant to respond with a hearty, "Hooray!", though this was usually rendered as a group grunt, along the lines of "rerh..."  Especially if, as so often, we had lost.  I recall the appallingly fractious annual grudge match against a south London school, William Penn (a.k.a. "Billy Biro"), endlessly interrupted by penalties, injuries, and what can only be described as racist incidents.  One year our team captain, Terry, simply refused to call for the obligatory three cheers, drawing down on himself the spluttering outrage of the teacher acting as our referee-cum-coach.  Aieee!

Which reminds me of another sound-effect incident at school, in the Sixth Form, when that same teacher was returning the marks on some English-to-German translation homework.  You could tell he was cross, because he flung our exercise books back at our heads like frisbees.  Ssswip!  Of course, a school exercise book only resembles a frisbee along one edge, so they mostly fluttered open halfway to their mark – ffrrrap! maybe – stalled, and landed lamely short, like shot pigeons falling to earth.  Which was amusing, which just made him even more cross.  Eek!  All we could do was wait.

The translation piece had been an extract from some prisoner-of-war tale, probably The Great Escape, describing the men settling into their new accommodation.  At one point, someone jumps down from a bunk with the comic-style onomatopoeic noise, ger-doing!   It seemed that this was the cause of pedagogical displeasure.  "Not one of you has attempted to translate ger-doing into German", he fumed.  "Not ONE!  Ger-doing is an ENGLISH noise, not a GERMAN noise!"

Have you ever had to suppress laughter so severely that it hurts?  Had to disguise it and let it out a little at a time, like opening an over-shaken bottle of pop, with coughs and strangled throat-clearing noises?  Been so dangerously near to collapsing into snorting hysterics that you dare not make eye contact with anyone else in the room?  I have.  Many times: it's one of my abiding memories of my school years.  It goes like this: Cough... Ha-hahmmm... Ha ha ha hee hee hee ha ha ha...  Hahmmm... Cough...  Oof.  Repeat da capo.  Now that can end up hurting much worse than a wasp sting.  Argh, indeed.

No comments: