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?

  • Not sure what you'd called it, but it does get used frequently in conversations among friends, especially youngsters. Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 18:43
  • @Brian thanks! This was my second question, but I wanted to keep it to one only. Thanks for answering it anyway ;-) Commented Jan 12, 2011 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
    Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 19:39
  • @Benjol if it was, then it wasn't a conscious inspiration. :) Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 19:47
  • 1
    TV Tropes just calls it tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CoughSnarkCough. Commented May 27, 2012 at 1:44

4 Answers 4


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.

  • Accepted, even though those examples are not totally what I have in mind. But "cough" as a verb works nicely. Commented Jan 17, 2011 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.


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.


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.

  • 2
    I don't think ahem covers coughing. The two links you provided only refer to throat-clearing. Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 19:06
  • @Mr Please check the second link again.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 19:42
  • 2
    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
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 21:05

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