The way words are pronounced gives them their unique sounds. We often combine certain words, based on their sound, to impart that just-so special sensation we’re seeking for a sonnet, story or song lyric we’re struggling to scribe.

It’s no surprise to you word junkies that we have words to describe the ways we use words based on their sounds. Take alliteration. That’s the repetition of initial consonant sounds, like in the previous paragraph. But is that all it is? Experts disagree as to whether or not similar types of repeated sounds, such as assonance and consonance, can also be considered alliteration.

I contend that alliteration is its own distinct thing. I base that contention solely on the fact that every time a clue on “Jeopardy!” calls for an alliterative response, the correct question always contains two or more consecutive words that start with the same letter. That alliterative ape atop the Empire State Building is King Kong, and so on.

Tongue twisters (She sells seashells by the seashore), cartoon characters (Donald Duck, SpongeBob SquarePants), and the names of big businesses (Coca-Cola, Dunkin’ Donuts) are often given as examples of alliteration.

Assonance and consonance, while similar to alliteration, usually involve more subtle sounds. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words, such as the “o” and “e” sounds in “A host of golden daffodils / Beside the lake, beneath the trees,” from William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.”

Consonance, on the other hand, is the repetition of consonant sounds. Notice the “s” sound (even from the word that begins with “c”) and the “as” sound in these lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” “I celebrate myself, and I sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume.”

So, are assonance and consonance also forms of alliteration? You be the judge. (While assonance and consonance are often useful in writing, it’s a good idea to avoid dissonance, a combination of unpleasant sounds, unless that’s the effect you’re going for.)

Among other words describing sounds is susurration, which is a low, indistinct continuous whispering sound. Between the “babbling brook” and the “whispering wind,” most examples of susurration make you feel like you’re alone in a forest.

Then there’s the euonym. Usually it refers to a word that’s well suited to the person, place or thing that bears it. Names like sprinter Usain Bolt, former President Ronald Reagan press secretary Larry Speaks, and California’s Death Valley come to mind. Late word maven James J. Kilpatrick said that a euonym could also be a word whose sound is considered beautiful or pleasing, such as: murmur, chocolate or the name of French actress Catherine Deneuve.

Finally, there’s good old onomatopoeia, which most of us learned about in school. You remember, the use of words that imitate sounds, such as: boom, pop, hiss and tinkle.

So, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” “This is the way this column ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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