When one "scoffs," is one actually making a snort-like sound, or is one merely treating something or someone with a disdain? Look at this example from Oxford: ‘‘You, a scientist?’ he scoffed.’ In such a case, is the one scoffing showing contempt through derision, or is he making an actual sound much like a soft cough?


  • For completeness, it should perhaps be noted that, in the UK at least, scoff can also mean eat quickly and eagerly (seemingly scarf in the US). See Cambridge Dictionary: scoff. – TripeHound Oct 10 '18 at 14:26
  • To clarify, are you asking if 'scoff' is an onomatopoeia? If so, the answer is a boring 'no' even if the PIE source *skeubh- "to shove" is imitative of the sound it makes when you shove someone. – Mitch Oct 10 '18 at 19:20

If you are asking if 'scoff' is an onomatopoeia, then the answer is a boring 'no'.

If it were an imitative sound, that is, 'scoff' attempting to sound like whatever mouth sounds you make when audibly displaying contempt, then the etymology of the word would say 'imitative'. For example:

oink (v. "to make a noise like a pig," 1965, of imitative origin.

As it is, 'scoff' has a much longer history.. It probably comes from Scandinavia, with cognates in Old High German. Eventually it started off with the PIE source *skeubh- "to shove".

The fact that it is borrowed immediately eliminates it from being considered imitative at the time of borrowing. (which is not to say that 'scoff' does evoke imaginatively some kind of pshaw or tsk or harumpf).

It is remotely possible that the PIEians (those who spoke PIE sitting around the campfire) shoved each other and the sound of this shoving sounded eerily like '*skeubh-'. And that may very well be considered imitative. But that doesn't make it imitative in English. For example, 'barbarian' is supposedly from Ancient Greek in their supposed imitation of non-Greek speakers babbling. It was imitative for the Greeks but not for English speakers.


The following definition may help:

To scoff:

To laugh at someone with scorn is to scoff at them. People have scoffed at many great inventors, saying their products would flop because the public wouldn't be interested in things like the light bulb, the personal computer, or the pet rock.

The verb scoff is often followed by the word at ("scoff at the idea, scoff at the statement, scoff at the notion"). The verb can also mean to treat with contempt or to mock. Naysayers scoff at all kinds of theories, and grouchy old men tend to scoff for the heck of it.


In treating a subject with contempt the tone of voice will also sound “contemptuous”, but I doubt it has anything to do with a cough.

  • Many of the examples in the link I sited express that scoff can, indeed, be a sound or (guttural) utterance. There's no reason to suggest that a sarcastic cough isn't included. – Remi Oct 10 '18 at 11:05
  • @Avrumi - well, a an expression can be associated with any sound you want to make, but that doesn't mean that the sound is always necessarily included- – user067531 Oct 10 '18 at 11:45
  • Agreed. I was focusing on your last line when you said: In treating a subject with contempt the tone of voice will also sound “contemptuous”, but I doubt it has anything to do with a cough. Why do you doubt it has anything to do with a cough when a cough alone is included in the definitions of the word scoff? – Remi Oct 10 '18 at 11:57
  • @Avrumi - "The verb can also mean to treat with contempt or to mock". I don't think there is any reference to a cough here. – user067531 Oct 10 '18 at 12:00
  • Ahh ok, let me explain further. There are different types of coughs. I am thinking of a throaty 'ahem,' with a cocked eyebrow for further derisive emphasis. A soft cough alone, without a throat clear or cocked eyebrow for emphasis, probably does not fall into a definition of scoff, as you are saying. – Remi Oct 10 '18 at 12:12

One definition provided is:

To laugh at with contempt and derision.


Another definition is:

An expression of scornful derision.

She looked up and glared at me hard for a moment before she shook her head and gave a soft amused noise that was halfway towards being a disbelieving scoff.

More examples can be found through the link.

A soft cough alone, without a throat clear or cocked eyebrow for emphasis, probably does not fall into a definition of scoff, as user240918 has expounded in his comments. However, there are many examples of verbal sounds that fall under the category of scoffing, for example a throat clear.

Oxford Dictionaries

  • 1
    I have tidied up your quotations and references so that you can see how it is done. Please feel absolutely free to roll back the edit to what you had before, if you wish. Regards – Nigel J Oct 10 '18 at 11:34
  • Your way is better. I'm still learning the ropes so thanks for your help. – Remi Oct 10 '18 at 11:37

The key thing is that whether or not scoffing occurred has to to with the meaning of the words/sounds, and not the sounds themselves.

Someone could scoff without coughing, laughing or any other noises besides language, with regular speech. Similarly, someone could scoff by coughing, deliberately, if they knew that others in the room would interpret it as a scoff rather than an accidental cough.

In other words, it is (like all communication) all in the interpretation, or the semantics if you prefer, and isn't tied to any specific vocal noise.


scoff noun
\ˈskäf, ˈskȯf\
1 : an expression of scorn, derision, or contempt : GIBE
2 : an object of scorn, mockery, or derision

scoff verb (1)
scoffed; scoffing; scoffs
intransitive verb
: to show contempt by derisive acts or language

scoffed at the idea

transitive verb
: to treat or address with derision : MOCK

You can see from these definitions, that scoffing is referring to the intent behind the communication. Some people communicate contempt with a soft cough like you have described, where others may use full-fledged paragraphs. The soft cough could be "an expression of scorn", so could be a scoff, but not all soft coughs are scoffs, and not all scoffs are soft coughs.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy