My native language is German and although many people find German to sound like a coughing fit, the language totally lacks an onomatopoeia for coughing (real coughing). Nor can I think of one in English.

  • Is there an onomatopoeia for coughing?
  • If not, how can I capture it in writing?
  • "What do you"--cough, cough--"want for breakfast?" . . . You can also examine the novels of your favorite English writers to see how they do it in their prose. You could also pose your question on a writing forum for possible techniques.
    – F.E.
    Apr 2, 2014 at 19:15
  • I think this is either Off Topic writing advice, or Primarily Opinion-based. The only "onomatopoeic" English word is probably ahem, but obviously that's for the attention-getting "non-verbal communication device". We don't have one that captures the essence of "Cough it up! It's only a lung!" Apr 2, 2014 at 20:08
  • @FumbleFingers... not necessarily. My first question has a clear answer so it seems (no, there isn't one). As for the second one... depending on what the sound is there might be a commonly accepted term. I recently learned "sad trombone" to be one of those. I was wondering, if there was something similar for coughing. The fact that you think it is opinion based hints at that there isn't a common way, so this would be a fine answer to the second part. In essence it's "No and you cannot". I don't see why this would be close worthy
    – Emanuel
    Apr 2, 2014 at 21:00
  • @Emanuel: The way I look at it is (1) - it's General Reference that English doesn't have a standard onomatopoeic representation for "real coughing" (just as we don't have one for "blowing one's nose"). And (2) - in the absence of a "standard" form, asking ELU how to represent it in writing is effectively POB writing advice. Now if you'd asked why there's no "coughing" equivalent to sneeze = atishoo, that would be a different question (not one that I'd know the answer to, I'm afraid! :) Apr 2, 2014 at 21:35

5 Answers 5


Cough is onomatopoeic. OED 1, s.v. Cough, v., recites Dutch and German cognates and remarks that “All these words appear to be of echoic origin, representing various sounds and actions made with the breath.”

  • It is, but examples like "to sneeze" and "to giggle" show that there my be a verb and still a second, imitation-only word as well (atchoo, hehe).
    – Emanuel
    Apr 2, 2014 at 21:21
  • 2
    It was more onomatopoeic when gh was pronounced /x/. Apr 18, 2015 at 15:10

I would just simply use the word cough or maybe cough with an asterisk on each side. You could use ahem too but I think you would lose your readers, or at least make them think too much about a simple cough.


A little descriptive language instead of or along with an onomatopoeic representation could be a solution:

Example 1: "Chelsea started to speak, 'I was out ill kaff! kaff! last week.' adding the cough for affect."


Example 2: "George savored the flavor of the cherry candy until he aspirated his own saliva and started to cough and choke, thinking it ironic that he would asphyxiate on a candy called a Lifesaver."

And...for more ideas, search for lists of onomatopoeic words like this one.


Onomatopoeia for coughing which I read in Sandman is

""Khoff Khak Khak!!""

Comics is I believe is a genuine source for onomatopoeic references.

Sandman are comics by DC. Written by Neil Gaiman. A very effective writer.

Other book written by Neil Gaiman

American Gods

  • Not my downvote, sorry. Perhaps the user believes that comics are not a sufficiently authoritative source. (Just guessing here!)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 25, 2015 at 12:37

And while it is not exactly in response to your question, I cannot resist the sound of a person vomiting, as written by Ian M. Banks in "Against A Dark Background":

Bleurghch! Aauuilleurch! Hooowwerchresst-t-t!

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