I mean, obviously "corrosion" isn't actually onomatopoeic, because corrosion doesn't make a sound (or at least not one that humans can hear). Yet it seems to me that the word corrosion sounds like its meaning, in some hard-to-define way.

Is there a term for words that suggest their meanings, without necessarily recreating the sound, but that aren't quite onomatopoeic? There are a lot of similar ones, like grind, shuffle.

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    Once you learn a word well, it's very difficult not to disconnect it from its meaning. 'Horse' sounds so much like a horse. 'Corrosion' is nowhere near onomatopoeic.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 14:17
  • It might help us to help you if you only asked one question at a time. Either ask about the onomatopoeia status of corrosion, or ask for a word that means "similar to but not onomatopoeia, because the word doesn't sound like the sound it describes". Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 14:19
  • onomatopoeia is onomatopoeic
    – bharal
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 15:20
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    How about this from A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: "Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect's false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder."
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 16:05

2 Answers 2


Words whose sounds refer to, suggest, or otherwise are associated with a particular meaning are cases of sound symbolism. Although onomatopoeia - direct imitation of a real-world sound - is one type of sound symbolism, it is not the only one.

A common sound symbolism is sound iconism. With the related clustering, this is the re-use of sounds across a set of words with related meanings. Note that this is the re-use of sounds, not morphemes. One example is found in the set of words stamp, stomp, tamp, tromp, and tramp which have the common /-mp/. The final /-mp/ sound is strongly suggestive of stomping or stamping, though it's actually not imitative of it.

Another set of words is glisten, gleam, glint, glare, glam, glimmer, glaze, glass, glitz, gloss, glory, glow, and glitter. The /gl-/ is associated with shining, though it's not imitative in any way since shining is visual, not auditory. Nevertheless English speakers hear these words as related.

This is not unique to English of course. For example, in Japanese linguistics one finds the terms phenomime and psychomime for similar phenomena.

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    To add to your excellent answer, corrosion comes from the Latin stem rod-, which means something like "gnaw, scrape"; the guttural-occlusive combination certainly suggests a scraping sound. So it is possible that corrosion has onomatopoeic roots, though I can't prove it. Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 18:42
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    See also Latin rado, raudus, rudus/-dis...this could be one of your clusters, or truly imitative in some way (historic research needed). Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 19:13
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    @Cerberus Good call -- Pokorny gives the Proto-Indoeuropean etymon as rēd- : rōd- : rəd- 'to gnaw, scrape, scratch' and [rd] certainly does have a scratching sound to it. Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 19:28
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    @Cerberus No, dental drills are abrasive; dental trills, not so much. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 20:24
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    @tchrist: Isn't a dental trill just a dental drill with a cold? (Or too much German blood?)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 22:41

I don't believe corrosion has any (historical or current) onomatopoeic qualities whatsover. But the question as now rephrased addresses the more general case covered by John Lawler's answer here...

Phonosemantics, or sound symbolism.

Per that Wikipedia link, onomatopoeia is the least significant type of symbolism. But it's very difficult for the layman to have a meaningful opinion on whether or not any given word has phonosemantic qualities. Once you know a word, you'll always associate the meaning with the sound - but it's not easy to say which came first.

There's also the well-known Bouba/kiki effect whereby the majority of speakers of any language tend to associate bouba with a "rounded" shape, and kiki with a "spiky" one. Personally, I doubt there are many such examples. But I do think neologisms such as cruft have more chance of gaining/retaining currency if they sound like words with related meanings (crud, crust, crude, for example, in that case).

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