Words can be powerful stimulants. They can evoke ideas, feelings and sensory and motor imagery. “Whack, plop and buzz” – say them aloud and slowly. These are examples of onomatopoeia, meaning they evoke sound. They are also known as ideophones, i.e. idea-inspiring words. In Japanese and some African languages there are ideophones that conjure up sight, smell, taste, kinaesthetic imagery and feelings, but in English, these are regarded as less common and are less researched.
However, we do have many ideophonetic words in English with more than just an onomatopoeic element. Take glimmer – this delightful word evokes a visual response, maybe even warmth, you can almost feel the coals. Twinkle is another example. So is dazzling. Try swashbuckling!
These words provide stimuli via multiple sensory channels and evoke thoughts memories and feelings. Some words have more power than others. Slimy is a beaut word. It evokes a haptic (touch) sense, even a little onomatopoeia, perhaps kinaesthetic imagery as you withdraw from a slimy memory and even some yuckiness as a slimy person or stagnant pond is recalled.
This suggests that ideophonetic words engage a wider neuronal mass including sensory and motor areas than non-ideophonetic words, with a variable engagement due to the context of word use. Words that are textural are known to engage somatosensory areas in the brain, for example “I had a rough day” compared to “I had a bad day” (Lacey et al 2012). Verbs such as throw, lick, touch, turn, grab and grasp may evoke activity in relevant motor areas. Grasp the idea evokes hand motor representations and kick the habit evokes foot representations (Boulenger et al 2009 ). This can be influenced by context and level of abstraction, i.e. hold a moment being more abstract than hold your tummy muscles. This notion of cortical activation reaching into sensory and motor areas of the brain to make sense of words is a foundation of the embodied cognition view point (eg Gallese & Lakoff 2005).
To the clinic, making a presentation or writing a paper
Ideophones could be helpful in many ways. For example, they may enhance message memorability and even help compliance with therapy. They may be useful in mental imagery by providing novel ways to activate and include new brain areas. They may enhance synaptic efficacy with meaningful words allowing quick capture of a concept – this may of course be useful or non-useful. The word “pain’ will be ideophonetic for some more than others, but like any stimulus, a linguistic stimulus can be regulated. The notion may encourage therapists to try out and use new words in the clinic.
The words lubricate and lubrication are ideophonetic. The ‘loooo’ may be onomatopoeic and inspire gliding imagery. ‘Bric’ has a tacky textural feel to it, at least to my mind.
I have an interest in osteoarthritic knees. I may say something like this to a client:
Try these strengthening and lubricating exercises for your knees, legs and body. Do them with the knowledge that even though they may be sensitive, these movements will be healthy, helpful and won’t cause any damage. I want to encourage you to do them in different places, with different people, at different times of the day and in different moods. This all gives you a richer knee representation in the brain by allowing many nerve cells to look after your knees when you need it.
The knees will respond by self-lubricating and making a reserve store of lubrication fluid. They will glisten, gleam and glide beautifully and every movement will nourish the knee, continually lubricating it. The quality of the joint fluid increases when you repeat the activity, when you know why you are doing it and when you have some future goals. Try to do lovely silky smooth movements to get that knee dancing back to life. Joint surfaces love a bit of pumping action too– it encourages fresh healing blood to the area and liberates even more joint fluid.
Share your favourite ideophones here!
Boulenger V et al 2009 Cereb Cortex 19: 1905
Gallese & Lakoff 2005 Cogn Neuropsychol 22:455
Lacey S et al 2012 Brain & Language 120:416