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We hear different sounds all the time. But how do we actually say them as words?
Let’s look at 42 sound words in English (plus some useful idioms with sound words).
1. Sounds of things hitting things
The sound of something heavy hitting the ground.
I don’t know why she’s dropping a brick from a high chair.
But it does make a fun sound.
The sound of a short, heavy hit.
This can also be used as a verb:
“She whacked him in the head with the pillow.”
The sound of someone hitting something (or someone) with an open hand.
You’ll hear this word a lot in idioms:
A slap in the face is used when someone has done something bad to you (given you something you don’t want or not given you something that you do want, for example), usually unfairly.
“I did all of the work for the project and then Sam gets the promotion — not fair. What a slap in the face!”
A slap on the wrist is when someone gets punished — but very, very lightly. Much less than they deserve:
“You heard about Hexon Oil? They polluted every lake in the country and only got a $2000 fine. It was barely a slap on the wrist, really.”
A slap-up meal is basically a massive meal — the kind of meal you have when you really don’t want to think about your weight or your health. Just enjoy it!
“I’ve sold the house! I’m taking you all out for a slap-up meal at Mrs Miggins’ pie shop!”
A slapdash job or slapdash work is work done really badly. I remember waiting in a cafe at Sofia airport, and these Austrian guys found it quite funny that there was just one plug socket in the whole cafe. And it was halfway up the wall. The designer definitely did a slapdash job:
“Don’t get that builder. He did such a slapdash job on our house that the roof fell in.”
OK, so “knock” is the sound that you make when you arrive at your friend’s house and hit their door with your hand.
There’s also the phrase “don’t knock it.”
It basically means “don’t criticise it.”
“Banana and crisp sandwiches are actually really good! Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!”
Stay away! It’s a rattlesnake. And it’s rattling its tail.
As a verb, “rattle” can also mean “disturb.”
Think about classic action heroes.
They can fall out of planes, jump off the edges of mountains, survive car crashes, helicopter crashes and bike crashes; they can be forced to swim underwater for five minutes and then run 200 metres over burning coals.
And after that, they’re just fine, right?
That’s because nothing rattles them. Nothing!
The sound of something wet hitting something else.
Like when you throw eggs or rotten tomatoes at the visiting politician.
Or a water balloon at your friend.
This is one of those words that sounds like it sounds, if you know what I mean.
It’s a heavy, dull sound.
A noisy, metallic sound.
This is like clang’s baby brother.
It’s a small, sharp sound — usually made when metal or glass touches something.
A light tapping sound.
We usually use it to describe rain:
“I love sleeping through storms, don’t you! The patter of rain on the roof and knowing you’re safe and sound in bed.”
When I was a kid (and for too long afterwards — she still does this when I visit) my mother would greet me when I came downstairs in the morning with:
“You’re awake! I thought I heard the patter of tiny feet!”
“Mum — I’m 37 years old.”
Clang is noisy and unpleasant, right?
Now imagine lots of clangs. That’s clatter.
The sound of something breaking into a million pieces. Usually violently.
“Smashing” can also mean “excellent”:
“She did such a smashing job that we hired her full time.”
We usually use this to describe closing a door very loudly.
But we can use it for other similar situations.
You can slam the phone down (if you’re using a non-mobile phone, like the retro kid you are).
You can also slam a glass on the table. (Think tequila shots.)
If someone slams the door in your face, they basically decide not to help you or give you information that you need.
“I called the helpline about it, but they refused to help. Completely slammed the door in my face.”
You can also just “slam” something. It means “give a very, very negative review.”
“The New York Times completely slammed his new book. But I thought it was pretty good.”
2. Mechanical sounds
When I lived in Istanbul, I would play a game.
I would try to count to five without hearing a single car honk its horn.
I never got past three seconds.
Also — it was a terrible game. But I was bored.
A continuous sound — usually quiet, often calming.
We almost always think of clocks and watches when we hear the word “tick.”
It’s that tiny, short sound.
So it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that we can use the phrase “time is ticking” to mean “hurry up!”
“Let’s get started! Time’s ticking.”
If you’re a bit angry (not furious — just a bit), then you can say that you’re “ticked off.”
“To be honest, I’m a bit ticked off. I didn’t expect you to tell everyone about what I told you. It was private.”
“In a tick” can also mean “in a minute,” “in a second,” “in a moment” or just “soon.”
“Take a seat. I’ll be with you in a tick.”
A small, sharp sound.
Think about a light switch.
Or this annoying guy and his annoying pen.
When you click with someone, you immediately get on well. You start talking and it feels as if you’ve always been friends.
“I’ve been friends with Gudrun for 20 years. We clicked as soon as we met.”
A loud noise! Usually sudden.
This is most closely associated with guns. But the building site next to my house also produces a lot of bangs.
If you go out with a bang, you finish or leave something in a super-dramatic way.
“Wow! His last day of work and he throws coffee in the boss’s face! Talk about going out with a bang!”
When someone bangs on about something, they talk for ages about it while successfully boring the life out of whoever has the bad luck to listen to them.
“If you could just stop banging on about your new computer for a minute, I’d like to talk to you about what happened last weekend.”
The sound of something vibrating.
When we talk about the buzz of a place, we’re talking about that special energy it has.
Some cities (like Vienna) have a real buzz, while some cities (like Swindon) don’t.
“What I miss about Istanbul most is the buzz. And the food. But mostly the buzz.”
You can also buzz someone in when you’re at home, and someone wants to get into the building. It saves you from having to walk all the way downstairs to let them in.
“Hey! I’m outside your flat now. Can you buzz me in?”
Finally, you can give someone a buzz. It just means “give them a quick call.”
“Let’s have that drink on Friday. Just give me a buzz, and I’ll let you know where I am.”
3. Electronic sounds
This is the sound of a very small bell.
Think of a typewriter or a hotel reception desk.
A ping will last for a long time (piiiinnnggggg). But a blip is very, very short.
Think of a radar in those films with too many submarines in.
A blip sounds quite nice, but a beep can get very annoying very quickly.
I don’t know how people working as supermarket cashiers don’t go crazy. Do they still hear the beeps when they go to sleep at night?
4. Organic sounds
A sudden breaking sound.
I guess because it’s quite an unpredictable sound, we can also use “snap” as a verb to mean “suddenly get angry.” When you snap, it’s probably a result of lots of things building up.
“It was when her kid put his school tie in the toaster that she finally snapped.”
It also has a second meaning.
Have you ever tried to talk to someone, and instead of saying “Hi!” or “Good to see you!” or “Nice hair,” they just angrily shout at you — completely unpredictable and sudden?
Then they snapped at you.
“I wouldn’t talk to him right now, if I were you. I just asked him if he was OK, and he snapped at me.”
You can also just say “snap” when someone else has something that you have. It could be a plan, an interest, or something physical, like a T-shirt.
“No way! Snap! I’ve got the exact same phone.”
Finally, there’s a snap election.
It’s a general election that the prime minister or president suddenly announces — usually because they think they’ll win. All of a sudden, we’re voting. Again!
“She said she wouldn’t call a snap election. Then she did.”
It’s like a loud snap.
If you want to celebrate, you can do so in style — by cracking open a bottle of champagne:
“You got the job?! Awesome — let’s crack open a bottle, yeah?”
If you drink too much of it, you might find EVERYTHING funny and just crack up all the time. It means suddenly start laughing. A lot. Until your face hurts.
“I told him my idea, and he just cracked up. I didn’t think it was that funny.”
Lots of small cracks.
Fire and fireworks crackle. And not much else.
A tiny, little, mini explosion sound.
Because it’s such a short sound, we use it in phrasal verbs to describe something quick.
You can pop out (go outside — but only for a bit):
“I’m just popping out for some fresh air. See you in a few minutes.”
Or you can pop in somewhere (visit — but only for a bit):
“When you’re in town, why not pop in for a coffee?”
The sound of food cooking.
There are basically only two things that rustle.
Leaves (especially dry, autumn leaves) and paper.
To rustle something up means to make a quick meal — like a sandwich or some toast.
“You haven’t eaten? Give me two minutes — I’ll rustle something up.”
A continuous, deep sound.
Think of thunder.
Or your stomach when you’re really hungry.
5. Water sounds
That nice sound of bubbles popping. Think about sparkling water or champagne.
You just need to say this word to understand what it means.
Go on, say it. Feels good, doesn’t it?
It’s basically the sound of walking in mud.
This is the sound of bubbles being created.
Imagine lying down in the green grass next to a beautiful stream.
What can you hear?
The gurgle of the stream of course.
And the lion. Look out for the lion.
If gurgle is a series of sounds, then glug is a single one of those sounds.
Think of how you sound when you’re drinking water quickly.
“Drip” looks like “drop,” right?
Well, “drip” is the sound that a drop makes when it hits something.
The sound of something hitting water (or any liquid).
Think of the sound of kids in the bath.
Or the sound at the end of a water slide.
If you feel like spending a little more money than you should, then you splash out.
“Yeah, it’s a bit pricey. But it’s my birthday. I’m gonna splash out.”
This is the sound of liquid flowing very slowly.
6. Other sound words in English
Don’t step on the rat’s tail. He’ll squeal really loudly.
Also, it’s not nice. Leave the rat alone, you monster.
A squeak is a small, high-pitched sound.
Think of the sound of a mouse.
Or an old bed.
Or a door that needs oil.
I once had a pair of shoes that squeaked a lot.
You can also use the phrase “a squeak out of someone” to describe any sound coming out of their mouth at all. It’s usually used in the negative.
“Right. He’s coming. I don’t want to hear a squeak out of either of you until he’s gone. I’ll do the talking.”
OK. Repeat after me:
Good — you’ve just made a hiss.
This is another word that sounds like it sounds. (These words are called onomatopoeia, by the way.)
It’s a bit like a mixture between a hiss and a rustle.
When you open that old, heavy wooden door.
Or decide to take your kids to a playground that was built in the ‘50s.
Then expect to hear a lot of loud, high-pitched sounds of wood and metal rubbing together.
A lot of creaks.
The sound of something hard or sharp rubbing against something else.
We use this a lot as a verb.
You might have to scrape ice off your car on winter mornings.
Or scrape the pancake off the pan after you’ve burned it.
Or scrape chewing gum off the table. Seriously, why do people do that?
There’s also the idiom “to scrape the bottom of the barrel.”
We use it when we’ve almost completely run out of options, and all we have are the worst choices.
“Is this the best we can do? We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. I mean some of them don’t even have faces.”
Congratulations! You now know 42 sound words in English (plus some new idioms).
So let’s practice:
- Have you splashed out on something recently (like a slap-up meal or clothes)?
- What ticks you off the most?
- Can you remember cracking up over something that wasn’t funny? What was it?
Answer in the comments!
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