I'm reading The Good, The Bad and The Smug by Tom Holt. It's a British-style fantasy/comedy in the Hitchhiker's tradition, and is good so far (page 89). But, something is throwing me: often a character will respond to a question by saying a single word which is written in the book as "Mphm". It isn't a single person saying this; I've counted at least three, so it must be something everyone's supposed to understand. Unfortunately, the set of those who understand doesn't include me.

My attempts to pronounce it founder; either I come up with "mm-p-'hmmm" (if the "p" is pronounced separately), or "mm-'fmmm" (if the "ph" is pronounced as "f").

My best guess is that it's the equivalent of my saying "Mhmm", pronounced "Mmmm-hmmm", and meaning "yes". I still have no idea of how it is to be pronounced, though.

Is my guess on the meaning correct? How would this be pronounced? And, any idea of how this spelling originated?

Edit: here's some example text from the book. Norman is objecting to being coerced into being an experimental subject:

"Now come on," he said reasonably. "Where's your scientific method? We can't just run bull-headed into a manned test programme, we've got to work up to it gradually, in controlled phases. Scientifically," he added hopefully.

"Scientifically?" Derek queried.

"Mphm." Norman nodded firmly.

Edit: I've been playing around with Google Ngram Viewer. Although there is slight usage of lower-case "mphm" in the mid-1800s, uppercase "Mphm" only starts being used in the 1900s, with the general "English" corpus having its biggest peak at 1917 (0.00000236% of words). But, if you switch to the "English Fiction" corpus, there are no usages of the lowercase "mphm", and the peak is at 1904 (0.0000128%, or five times higher).

And, if you try Google Books, you'll find a number of uses just like the ones I found in the Tom Holt story (although a lot of them are from the same World War I story).

  • 1
    You need the Babel fish to understand this. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 16:14
  • 1
    I would say it means exactly what it sounds like.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 17:02
  • I'm pronounce it like "oomph" without the "oo".
    – VampDuc
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 17:54
  • That's used a lot in Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series which in that context is used as a one-size-fits-all reply/affirmation by the Scottish Highlanders. I imagine (IMO) it's a kind of vocal but non-verbal grunt pronounced like "m-fff" but with the mouth closed. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 18:38
  • Ignore case. The "word" is not a proper name, nor does is it necessarily always the first word in a sentence.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 11, 2015 at 1:54

2 Answers 2


It sounds like the writer intends to represent a generic noncommittal noise, basically a brief grunt together with an exhalation through the nose. The "mm" part is the vibration of the vocal cords, while the "ph" (a common way of writing the "f" sound) is the rush of air out of the nostrils.

  • 1
    Exactly this. "mphm" is this author's way to write "hmph" without implying any annoyance. Other ways to write the same general "noncommittal grunt" are "mmm" (but that can sound like you're trying to imply "yum") and "hm" (but that can sound like you're implying a question).
    – Marthaª
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 16:14

Searching on Google, using the following search terms:

mphm interjection

yields two references to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition.

From what I can see from the main search screen, the OED defines mphm as:

expressing disapproval, doubt or dissatisfaction

PLEASE NOTE that I don't have access to the OED full record, but if anyone else is able to do so and could check it for me, that would be great!

  • By context in this book, "Mphm" is quite clearly meant to convey approval/agreement/concurrence. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 20:24
  • @DanielGriscom presumably, Tom Holt was unaware that it had already been defined by the OED then! Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 21:00
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    Fer cryin' out loud!! The word is simply a sound that a crusty person makes when contemplating his response. It has no more "meaning" than "uh".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 11, 2015 at 1:56

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