The other day I needed to email someone who was being ridiculous, so I started off by typing, “pshaw.”

What an appropriately ridiculous word.

“Pshaw” is an old word, dating to the 1600s. It’s used to express disbelief or impatience. When I was little and first read “pshaw” in a book, I assumed it was pronounced like it was spelled. “Puh-shaw.”

But I never actually say “puh-shaw” to anybody. If I think you’re being ridiculous, I’ll just roll my eyes at you. Or perhaps stare long and hard at you over the top of my glasses.

We humans make all kinds of weird noises to express ourselves. And sometimes we need to write these noises down. And so we smash letters together in a rough imitation of the sound.

Oooooooo, I love that dress!

Oooooooooh, now I understand.

The technical term for words that imitate sounds is “onomatopoeia.” (Have you ever seen so many o’s in one word? Pshaw!)

The cool thing about onomatopoeia (besides those four vowels all in a row) is that such words come out much the same across different languages.

In English, the clock goes “tick tock.” In Spanish, it goes “tic tac.” In Hindi, it goes “tik tik.”

In Iceland, the dog says “voff.”

In Italian, the mouse says “squitt.”

In German, the pig says “grunz.”

In Estonian, the duck says “praak.”

I still don’t know what the fox says.

Another word that flummoxed me when I was little was “tsk.” Tisk? I’d never in my life heard anybody say “tisk.” It was years before I had an aha moment and figured out that “tsk” is that sound your grandmother makes when she disapproves of what you’re up to.

The hen says “cluck.” The grandma clucks her tongue.

Humans are amazingly subtle when it comes to our vocal inflections, which can be hard to capture in writing. For instance, ah, aaaaaaah, aw and aaaaaaw all mean different things.

Ah, look at the fireworks!

Aaaaaaah! It’s a serial killer!

Aw, shucks.

Aaaaaaw, what a cute puppy! Voff, voff!

“Ha!” is a laugh, “heh heh” is a chuckle, “tee hee” is a giggle, and “bwahahahaha” is the villain revealing his evil plans.

The sheep says “baa.” Scrooge says “bah!”

If you’re excited, you say “wow.” If you’re not excited, you say “ugh.” If you’re somewhere in the middle, you say “meh.”

If you want everybody to just stop for one minute and let you think, you say “shhhhh!”

If you blow air out of your lips in a derisive manner, that’s spelled “pffffft.” If you stick your tongue out while doing this and blow a raspberry, that’s spelled “pbbbbt.” (Add more f’s or b’s as desired.)

As best I can tell, there is no way to spell a gasp.

I don’t know about you, but when I sneeze it sounds nothing like “achoo!” I also do not “HONK” when I blow my nose.

But my hiccups sound like “hiccup,” and my burps sound like “burp.” Unless I drank my soda too fast, and then they’re more like “braaaaap.”

Also, if I hit my thumb with a hammer, I don’t say “ow” or “ouch.” I say “$@&*!”

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or


Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.