Slang City Mail

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June 19, 2009

Greetings from!

Slang of the Week: kerplunk (noun/verb/adverb/exclamation)
the sound of a heavy object falling onto/into something (especially water)

Carol the bully threw Aida’s new boots into the river. Kerplunk!

Celebrity quote:
“A hundred bodies may kerplunk to the ground, necrophilia and back-alley sex-for-hire get tended to, and the f-word ricochets around with the thwacking frequency of ammo fire, but Shoot 'Em Up really is just Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd.”
- Film critic Stephen Rea

1967 heralded the release of a new children’s game in which plastic skewers were threaded horizontally through small holes in a vertical plastic tube. Marbles were laid on top of the resulting structure, and players pulled out the skewers one by one, trying to keep the marbles from dropping down on their turn. (Image) This popular game was called KerPlunk after the sound of the falling marbles.

Last year, KerPlunk also became the nickname of B of the Bang, a huge public sculpture in Manchester, England. Initially welcomed as an exciting addition to the city, its popularity quickly waned when dangerously large, sharp, heavy pieces of the metal starburst began to fall off.

Words like kerplunk, which borrow their spellings from the sound we hear, are called onomatopoeic, and they have been on my mind this week as I worked on a translation of the Black Eyed Peas song Boom Boom Pow. Boom is the deep sound of a drum or explosion, and pow is the sound a punch or gunshot. In comic books, such words are often written in large letters to give emphasis to the action. A fight scene might include the sounds of someone being hit with a board (Thwack!), crying out in pain (Ooof!), being thrown through a window (Crash!) and landing on the sidewalk below (Splat!).

What often surprises people is that these are not universal, and what is perceived as the “natural sound” of a word varies greatly from language to language. I discovered this many years ago during a discussion of animal noises in a group of international students. American roosters say “cock-a-doodle-do,” but Italian ones say “chicchirichí.” While in Japan, frogs say “kero kero,” in the US, they say “ribbit ribbit.” And back to comic books, American guns go “bang!”; French ones go “pan!”

For more on onomatopoeic slang, see ka-ching; whiz-bang; Ralph, Earl and Buick; and snaps!

What’s New?
Boom! Pow! Zoom! Bang! Slang to Standard English translation of Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas, including many cultural references.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Sounds may be different from language to language, but they may differ even in the same language. Find out how in Bum Bags and Fanny Packs: A British-American American-British Dictionary by Jeremy Smith.