This question asked what you call those words that sound like the sound they make. It was closed as general reference. Really!? How the hell is the guy supposed to look up the answer when he doesn't know the name of the thing he's supposed to look up? Someone please tell me the name of a commonly available reference work that can be used to trivially answer this question.

I know some people like to close-vote questions as GR when they think the question is "too basic," but even a basic question can't be looked up if you don't know what to look up. And this question really isn't even all that basic. "Onomatopoeia" is not "apple." It's a rarely used word that's hard to remember and even harder to spell. If SWRs are on topic at all here, it's difficult to see why this one wouldn't be.

Fortunately, Josh61 managed to give the definitive correct answer in the brief time this question was open. Let's reopen it and then protect it, so it doesn't just sit around collecting silly non-answers. Either that, or let's implement a new custom close reason:

general clairvoyance: This question could be easily answered using a commonly available reference, if you knew what to look up, which you don't. Go read Catch-22 and stop bothering us.

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    PHenry: your desire is commendable, to show a good face to newcomers, but this is the problem with SWRs. They are terribly basic and only help the one person asking it. They are hardly different from crossword puzzle hints. So there are no spelling dictionaries online.. oh wait...typing 'anamato...' gives onomatopoeia in a drop down immediately. Now, you may want to allow such questions, but the culture here is we'd love to be bothered... for things that we expect the user can't do themselves with exactly the same easiest to use tools that we ourselves have.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 21:17
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    @Mitch I'm not sure that's 100% accurate. It could be, I literally don't know. However it would seem that if the user is in another country, learning English, maybe Google doesn't auto-prompt with the same words. I don't know. Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 21:24
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    Google is not General Reference for a number of reasons, and even if it were, personalized and region/language-specific search results mean that not everyone sees the same results page.
    – phenry
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 22:19
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    @Mitch: Google's spelling hints are (a) localized, and (b) only work if you have a general idea of what word you're looking for.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 1:12
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    While this particular question sounds like it belongs on ELL, I would say that "What does word X mean?" is GR but not "What's a word that means X?".
    – Gabe
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 4:27
  • The question should probably have been closed as a duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/56600/…
    – MrHen
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 17:02
  • Google is not General Reference and is of no help in this particular case. However, OneLook is General Reference and does answer the question. Also, it should be noted that OP heard the word from their teacher, whose entire job it is to answer questions such as "could you spell that for me, please?" Waiting to ask a bunch of strangers off the Internet instead is rather strange.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 17:07
  • Oh, and we've had questions like that in the past, and we closed and deleted them in the past, too. After the OP got his answer, the question is useless to anyone else. Who else is going to look for that exact misspelling? So pointing the OP in the right direction is okay, but so is closing and deleting. The best of both worlds.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 17:11
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    What's about echomimetia (echomimetic)? You all guys seem to forget about the synonym of onomatopoeia...
    – user74809
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 17:04

6 Answers 6


My problem with the "General Reference" justification for closing questions is a bit different from the one raised here by phenry: Too often people vote to close a question on that basis without doing any research into the poster's question themselves.

A case in point occurred yesterday. A poster with a reasonably strong track record at EL&U (1,710 points, 3 silver badges, 7 bronzes) submitted this question:

First use of “bunk”

My question is simple: Which came first, bunk as in "bunk beds" or "to bunk" as in to find a place to sleep? Almost suredly, the definition of one created the definition of the other by association, however I was wondering if anyone knew which came first. Thanks.

Within a few minutes of the question's appearing in the queue, a commenter (who likewise has a fairly strong track record at this site) posted this comment:

This seems like a general-reference question.

...and a few minutes after that, the poster deleted his question.

All in all, no harm was done, I suppose; but in checking a general reference (Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary) during the brief period when the question was open, I ran into something odd: MW said that the word bunk is "prob. short for bunker" despite its being (by MW's reckoning) 81 years older than bunker (if we treat a word's first known occurrence in print as its date of birth). Baffled by this assessment, I consulted a second general reference (my 1985 edition of the OED) and learned that its editors considered bunk to be "Of unknown etymology"—this despite the fact that in the OED's estimation bunker was 67 years older than bunk.

A few minutes of general-reference research had turned up several interesting things: MW's weird theory that bunk came first but was probably derived from the later word bunker; OED's refusal to hazard an opinion about the etymology of bunk; and the two references' opposing views on whether bunk or bunker was the earlier word.

When I went back to the poster's question to note these facts, however, I found that the poster had already deleted the question. Because the MW–OED disagreement had piqued my interest, I went ahead and ran a Google Books search for bunk, bunks, bunker, and bunkers, to see what matches that resource would turn up. Last night, after some hours of investigation, I submitted my own question and answer about the relationship of bunk and bunker, focusing on the issues that I thought were most interesting. But I wouldn't have considered the question at all if not for the original posting.

If the OP of the "First use of 'bunk'" question had simply consulted the Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, he would have found that the noun bunk dated to 1758, the noun bunker dated to 1839, and the verb bunk dated to 1840. If the OP had simply consulted the OED, he would have found that the noun bunk dated to 1815, the noun bunker dated to 1758, and the verb bunk dated to 1861. Either way, according to both references, he would have learned that the noun bunk preceded the verb bunk.

But it seems to me that if the commenter (whom I don't mean to pick on here) had checked those two general references instead of merely asserting that the question "seems like a general-reference question," he might have been struck by the inconsistency in the dates and in the disputed priority between bunk and bunker. Does anyone else see any irony in criticizing a poster for not consulting general references, without bothering to consult the general references either?

One thing I've learned from consulting multiple references in pursuit of answers to seemingly straightforward questions is that "general references" often disagree on questions of coinage date and etymology—and when such disagreements arise, the notion that consulting a "general reference" will resolve the question goes by the boards.

I recommend that anyone inclined to close a question involving etymology or coinage date as "general reference" take the time to consult at least two independent references first, to confirm that a consensus about those details actually exists. It wouldn't hurt, either, to hold off on closing such questions for, say, 12 hours after they post, to give other researchers time to check their own reference works.

Though I have had occasional success in reopening closed or on-hold questions, it's much harder to reopen a question than to answer one that hasn't been consigned to limbo in the first place.

In any event, I'd love to see a little less haste in condemning questions as "General Reference" and in pressuring posters to withdraw them. One of this site's best features is that it permits users to investigate and spell out the limitations, inconsistencies, and even outright errors that general-reference answers may include.

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    I totally agree with you that "General Reference" was an inappropriate classification for that bunk question. I'm not going to speculate why the OP closed it (apart from to say I'd be saddened but not wholly astonished to learn it was "intimidation"). Anyway, I've voted to re-open it, whether that's against the OP's wishes or not. If you do likewise and a few more people see the sense of your position (and are in a position to endorse it with a vote), perhaps you could relocate most of your text here into an answer there. Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 21:45
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    The original bunk question has been reopened, and I hope that the poster will receive some positive responses to what turns out to be a pretty interesting question. Thanks, FumbleFingers (and whoever else voted to reopen the question).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 22:28
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    There is no irony in criticizing a poster for not consulting a GR without consulting it yourself. That is the whole point of the GR close-reason: The question is not allowed unless you do the research. Once the research uncovers further questions, then it is allowed. If we had to do dictionary look-ups for everyone who can't be bothered to do a dictionary look-up before we could say "go look it up first", there would be no point in telling people that, as we've already done all the work. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 19:35

I was the first to closevote the onomatopoeia question, and I freely admit if it had been asked a couple of years ago I'd have cited "Too Basic" as the reason. Since that's no longer available, I chose the best of a bad bunch.

I don't accept that only things which can easily be looked up in one of the sources cited by our What good reference works on English are available online? question count as "General Reference". The first Google search term that came to mind for that question was grammar sounds like word, and I note that two of the first three results returned there include the relevant word in the "snippet" view (it was a "Chrome Incognito" search, to avoid being biased by my personal search history, and I frankly don't think "regional" bias would make any significant difference for a query using English words).

I'd also point out that questioners are expected to do "basic research" before asking here. Apparently the OP already knew he was looking for a grammatical term that "sounds like" anamatapic (he just didn't know how to spell it). If he'd tried searching for, say, grammatical term word sounds like, I imagine the relevant Wikipedia entry would be top of the results list in all regions.

It's also worth noting that the answer had already been posted when I closevoted (if it hadn't, I'd have posted a comment with the relevant information). I would never vote to delete the question (because it's not ridiculously Off Topic), but I really didn't see the point of keeping it open (or re-opening it). Realistically, how many usefully different ways can you say "anamatapic is a misspelling of onomatopoeic"?

TL;DR: I don't expect questioners to be "clairvoyant", but I do think that anyone who can't find the word onomatopoeia after just a few seconds Googling can't really be numbered among linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts.

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    No matter how many times you use it as such, Google is STILL not general reference, and the fact that something appears in the first page of search results is totally irrelevant.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 3:28
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    @Martha: You're nothing if not consistent. But I do wish you'd at least preface such statements with "I think that..." As you know perfectly well, we have differing opinions on this matter, but you always cast your perspective as "fact", and mine as "erroneous opinion, based on irrelevant factors". Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 11:11
  • Google may not be "general reference" in everyone's eyes, but I think most of the time it is a great stepping stone to one of those "sanctioned" references. My Google search "word that sounds like sound" immediately came up with onomatopoeia and from there I could easily take that and look it up in a dictionary "to make sure"
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 16:55
  • @Jim: Good point. Obviously I do take note of the actual websites that figure in a page of results returned by Google. In the case of my search referenced above, I saw onomatopoeia in the snippet views from Wikipedia and OxfordDictionaries, which was quite enough to convince me this was General Reference without actually going to either of those sites to see how good their "internal" search facilities might be. (Though if they're anything like ELU's, I simply wouldn't bother - I'd use Google's "site-specific search" facility! :) Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 17:15

I too voted to close the question. But before I did, I saw the correct answer had been given in the comment section by two users and an answer had also been posted. How many answers of onomatopoeia do we need?

I also posted a link to an old ELU question with mnemonic tips so next time he has a better chance of spelling it right. Then (out of curiosity) I typed the OP's question, word for word in Google. The Wikipedia article was the top result, today it's Oxford dictionaries. I also posted a comment to that effect. I think the comments, and the answer posted by @josh61 were being helpful, friendly and sensible.

Remember, the OP only wanted to know the word onomatopoeia. Nothing else.

Before his edits the original question was

In our English lesson, we talked about words that are derived from sounds.

Our teacher said they are "anamatapic", but it seems I can't get the spelling right. Even google does not provide a good suggestion for a better spelling.

So now I am looking for the word that sounds like "anamatapic" and describes the professional term for words that sound like the sound. Everything's clear?

Does the above show research effort; it is useful and clear?

You could argue "yes" for all three points. Should it therefore be reopened? No. Because there are no other answers.

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    +1 particularly for emphatically making the case that a question which really only admits of a single one-word answer shouldn't be reopened. I take it that, like me, you wouldn't closevote if the answer hadn't already been supplied (by a comment or answer, possibly your own if no-one else had already done so). Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 21:36
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    If a question isn't off-topic, it's misleading to leave it closed as off-topic. Maybe that's part of the reason nobody is really sure what's on-topic and off-topic here. Wouldn't it make more sense to reopen it and protect it?
    – phenry
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 2:28
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    I agree with phenry - questions really shouldn't be closed solely because they don't need more answers. It sends a confusing message not just to the poster, but to others as well. Plus, closed questions are at risk for deletion, go into various metrics that assume they are off-topic, unwelcome, etc.
    – Jaydles
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 13:52

I posted a comment here earlier about how a Google search of the question's title on my computer led to the Wiki page. But I remembered -- a little too late to keep me from posting, though -- a time on ELU where I learned of regional differences in search. (If I'd read through the other comments here I would've remembered sooner... d'oh!) Although this time the OP noted in a recent edit that it held for their web results too, I know that doesn't always hold in general. My bad.

Onomatopoeia has a special significance for me. I recall learning it from one of the books/magazines I liked a lot as a kid. I remember one long car trip in particular where I read that word and talked to my fellow travelers about it, wanting to know how it was pronounced because I didn't really believe it was a word. The ensuing conversation led to other impressive vocabulary words, namely, tintinnabulation.

Because of this resonance I fell into the common trap of knowing how to verify the answer from the information given, but not really knowing how to deduce it from the same information. From my personal experience it felt like it was general reference... but my personal experience is not a commonly available reference. Besides, there are words I struggle with that other forum members see with similar/better clarity from their own experiences. So I think the request for a common reference to answer the question at hand (how to recover the proper spelling of a complex word) is a reasonable one.

But there are a few points a proponent of the hold might use which I think are worth considering.

Of the questions covered on ELU, definitions (although still subject to change in a living language like English) are among the more static. The resources that are authoritative, dictionaries and encyclopedias and thesauri, are plentiful, reachable and typically distinguishable from non-authoritative resources. So I don't think the Google Is Not a General Reference question, whose question focuses on the authority or credibility of the results, is as applicable here as it would be elsewhere.

And though the question is about converting a definition to a word, I see it as being different from others tagged as , which tend to be the other way around -- wanting to know if a word exists for a definition. (I think I'd like to see this tagged as too, but the tags applied have little bearing on the quality of the question.) I foresee questions about spelling possibly starting a vicious cycle of their own:

  1. A user knows they're misspelling an existent but complex/esoteric word
  2. The question is admitted and answered because there is no general reference that could remedy their mistake
  3. A second user significantly later posts a distinct enough (and valid enough) misspelling of the same word

It would be as unfair to close the second one as GR as it was the first by the rationale discussed in this Meta question. If the two questions are distinct enough (the research of one misspelling didn't lead to the other post), it also seems unfair to close as duplicate. It looks to lead to debates on:

  • What constitutes a 'valid enough' misspelling?
  • Are some misspellings more valid than others?
  • When is a word nontrivial/uncommon enough to justify a spelling question?

Answers to such questions need not be more than the spelling and a link proving its validity. And so ELU may get many questions that are highly similar in nature, soliciting short answers found without the aide of GR but containing little information outside of GR, and localized because they are helpful mostly to people who misspell the word similarly.

I think the best we can do in such a situation is treat neither as a bad question (being prudent with how we vote), but discourage the activity if we find we're getting a slew of different questions about the spelling of some word. Having a question go on hold can be a little jarring but having it done fairly and thoughtfully, with full consideration for the OP, has led to good resolutions.

As an aside: I'm very pleased with the responses all-around to the linked question. ELU and its moderators, as well as the OP, all handled this situation deftly and peaceably. :)

  • +1 because you raise some interesting points here, on many of which I agree with you. But for me the bottom line is it's not really relevant whether the OP knows something about the target word (starts with some particular letter, has so many syllables, or whatever). The question is simply whether a person properly falling withing ELU's target user base should reasonably have been able to find it just using some readily-accessible resource (within which I include the Google search engine itself, since I constantly use that for spelling & such). Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 21:31
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    I once had a song stuck in my head and tried finding it by Google. Never was good with lyrics but I could remember its melody. Sometimes what I piece together is enough; other times it isn't. It can distract me from my work but only in a mild, annoying way. I would feel the same looking for a word if all the spellings I came up with were off-base, yielding irrelevant searches. I agree with Martha that the more info I have the better my searches (indeed, tools) are. I agree now that what OP knows about target is immaterial. Here it's extra, helpful info. +1 for ensuring answer and anti-delete.
    – user39720
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 23:01
  • Ha! I know what you mean about trying to identify a song. Sometimes it's not so bad if you can think of a fragment from the lyrics that's not so likely to occur in normal discourse, but that doesn't work if you can't recall any such (or it's an instrumental piece). Google now has voice input, but I don't think you can just hum a line of a melody into it yet. Mind you, I've seen some pretty impressive recognition of music tracks where you can simply play them into your iPod's microphone (but if I could only find the track in my 100,000+ track library, I'd have it labelled anyway). Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 23:09
  • After I found that song I heard there was software called SoundHound, which I haven't tried, that might help. C'est la vie. The being-at-a-loss in both situations is so similar that next time I have trouble spelling a word I'm replacing the la-de-da's in What's the Name of That Song with my misspellings: O-C-A-S-S / I-O-N-A-L -- / how should I spell that word? :)
    – user39720
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 23:28

As one of the closers, I, too, will offer you a brief(er) response to "How the hell is the guy supposed to look up the answer when he doesn't know the name of the thing he's supposed to look up?"

The answer is, he's not. So tell him.

The OP asked his question at 9:46:19. Josh61 answered in comments at 9:49:10 as did Brian Donovan at 10:07:17. By the time I came along (16:53:36) it was, indeed, answered, and it is Gen Ref. It's one of the most well known words for words. Entire songs have been devoted to it.

One point I agree with, though, is that of trying to put oneself in the OP's position. I recently got chastised by an OP for suggesting that he google a well known phrase, as it came up in the first position on my search. He answered that his Chinese google search yielded no results. I was quite surprised (shows my tech-savvylessness).

To me, it's not a crime to close as Gen Ref if 1) it is GR, and 2) there is an answer in the comments.

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    This assessment of the onomatopoeia instance (and others like it) strikes me as commonsense and sound: The OP has the desired answer, and the question is essentially retired—which doesn't harm future EL&U users who may have a similar question, since they are unlikely to type the exact misspelling that this poster did in the search box. The question's useful life ends at the moment that the OP sees the correct answer in the Comments.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 15:48

In situations like the one that phenry brings up here, where a commenter provides the unmistakably correct answer and the question itself has no search or archive value, why can't we have the option to vote it or declare it "Closed: Answered in Comments"?

There is nothing controversial about the answer to the "anamatapic" question, and the commenter has helped the only person in the world who cares about the question as it is formulated, so (it seems to me) EL&U should be able to declare at that point, "Our work here is done."

My only concern about "Closed [or Put on hold] as Answered in Comments" is that voters might be tempted to cite that reason in instances where a question isn't really or fully answered in the comments beneath it; but that's a danger with any close or put-on-hold option, isn't it? At least with "Answered in Comments" we give the strongest reason why no one should object to the closure—and perhaps we encourage answerers to help out clueless questioners instead of telling them (the questioners) to try harder.

As a side benefit, "Answered in Comments" would reduce the size of the Unanswered Questions queue without requiring voters to vote up obvious answers. I suspect that many people answer exceedingly simple questions as comments because (1) they want to help the questioner, but (2) they don't think that the question or the answer rises to the level of deserving an upvote. That's my motivation at times, anyway.

I suppose that some users might have a philosophical or practical concern about encouraging bad questions by answering them; but EL&U gets boatloads of bad questions anyway, and the real question is how to dispose of them effectively and (if possible) helpfully.

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