English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What I mean is the act of "coughing" something that you don't actually want to (or rather dare) say outright. So instead of writing, say, "Miss Parker", you'd write "*cough*Ms Parker*cough*" or fake a cough that sounds very much like "Miss Parker".

Written and spoken differ in that of course, when written is absolutely clear what that "coughed" term is, while when spoken it's "hidden" in the cough (which the written form tries to express).

Never heard it in conversation, only heard it in movies or read it in books, though my contact to actual English native-speakers is (sadly) limited.

Is there a linguistic/rhetorical term for that?

share|improve this question
Not sure what you'd called it, but it does get used frequently in conversations among friends, especially youngsters. – Brian Knoblauch Jan 12 '11 at 18:43
@Brian thanks! This was my second question, but I wanted to keep it to one only. Thanks for answering it anyway ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 12 '11 at 18:47
I guess in the spirit of this question, you could call it an 'outerjection' or an 'outfixation' :) (Did that question inspire this one?) – Benjol Jan 12 '11 at 19:39
@Benjol if it was, then it wasn't a conscious inspiration. :) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 12 '11 at 19:47
TV Tropes just calls it tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CoughSnarkCough. – Mechanical snail May 27 '12 at 1:44
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Although I haven't focus grouped it, "cough" as a verb of saying sounds OK to me and expresses the desired meaning. As in

"I crashed your truck," the porter coughed.


She coughed the words "thirty seconds," in response to her mother's demand to know how long she had spent considering her options.

share|improve this answer
Accepted, even though those examples are not totally what I have in mind. But "cough" as a verb works nicely. – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 17 '11 at 0:19

The best I can come up with is the idiom to say something under your breath.

Closely related words which may cover this are to mutter, mumble or mussitate.

share|improve this answer

It's a parenthetical comment, demarcated with a pair of "ahem," rather than the usual parenthesis (as this comment is), or by commas, as this one is, marking the parenthetical comment.

The use of "cough" as opposed to "ahem" seems to be fairly modern, but ahem is an onomatopoeia (a word that replicates or nearly replicates a sound that it represents) for throat clearing.

Similar parenthetical onmatopoeia include "sigh," "whimper," "moan," "groan," and "ah." Frank Herbert used "Ahhmmm" for the character of Count Hasimir Fenring in his dune novels, occasionally as parenthetical markers.

share|improve this answer

This can be called a hem, and is often written as ahem.

I'm not sure this covers the case where the speaker actually coughs over a word.

share|improve this answer
I don't think ahem covers coughing. The two links you provided only refer to throat-clearing. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 12 '11 at 19:06
@Mr Please check the second link again. – Jay Jan 12 '11 at 19:42
Speaking of throat-clears, I suppose it would not be off-topic to make mention of the following satirical article: specgram.com/CLXVIII.1/04.caws-elwitt.review.html – Mike Jones Sep 24 '15 at 21:05

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.