Phrase of the day: slap bang in the middle

Onomatopoeia is a strange thing. Officially, it’s the use of words that supposedly sound like the sounds they refer to. If we only speak one language, we hardly ever even notice such words as buzz or thud, and if we do stop to think about them, we automatically assume that these are just the noises that insects make they fly or that something heavy – like a sack of potatoes – makes when it falls to the ground.

We take these words for granted and think it must be obvious to everyone that these things just sound like this. They are, however, very culturally rooted. I first realised when I started learning Indonesia and noticed that in comics, dogs said guk! guk! when barking – not woof! woof! I still remember the hilarity that resulted when I first asked a class of international students what dogs said – and learned that  Turkish dogs say hev hev, Spanish dogs guau guau, Japanese dogs wang wang, Icelandic dogs voff voff and so on.

I used to teach a lot of closed Japanese groups and spent some time working in Hiroshima, where I learned that Japanese is very rich in onomatapoeic words, but that none of them sounded anything like I’d imagine things to sound myself! I mean, when someone yawns, do you hear fuwaa? Does heavy rain make a zaa-zaa noise? And do bombs explode with a dokan? Nope! For me neither.

You may be wondering why we’re talking about all of this today. Well, it’s because during our summer school, one of our students rented a room in Zone 1, near the British Museum. When we were chatting over coffee about where everyone was staing, she replied proudly slap bang in the centre of the city – and then added Well, that’s what it says on the website anyway.

Slap bang is an adverb often used as part of a description of where things are (or were) and often collocates with in the middle of, to create the idea of absolutely in the very middle of the middle! So in London people often complain about how high rents are if you live slap bang in the middle of town, or how they came out of a tube station one day only to find themselves slap bang in the middle of a British National Party demo!

The phrase can also be used in a more metaphorical sense, to talk about time and the activities occuring within a period of time. This is particularly common in tabloid journalism, as these examples show:

It was a glorious sunny day, the sea was inviting and it was slap bang in the middle of the holiday season.

Turning 25 was a key moment for me. I suddenly found myself slap bang in the middle of my twenties.

We are currently slap bang in the middle of a consultation phase.

However, quite why this phrase should be onomatopoeic in the first place is anyone’s guess. What do you reckon?

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  • Do you know anyone who lives slap bang in the centre of town? How do they manage it?
  • Have you ever come out of a station or turned a corner and found yourself slap bang in the middle of a demo or a parade or a riot?
  • How would you say buzz, thud and woof in your language?
  • Can you think of any other onomatopoeic words in your language?
  • Do you know any others in English?
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