Ahem, ahem: the language of coughing
The language of coughing is not, on the face of it, a particularly expressive one. Most usually associated with colds and winter mornings, it isn’t a medium that lends itself to communication – indeed, it is more likely to disperse a crowd than attract eager listeners. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring the word itself, so let’s take a closer look at cough and its different meanings and synonyms.
The first coughs
While coughing is as old as the human race (one presumes), the word cough itself dates (as both a noun and a verb) to the 14th century. Early instances of both parts of speech can be found in William Langland’s Piers Plowman (‘soone this doctor… Coughed and carped’; ‘Coughes and cardiacles, crampes and toothaches’) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘That sleep til that the coughe hath hym awaked’; ‘softe he cougheth with a semy soun’).
You’ll notice that Chaucer gives the noun the definite article. Until the end of the 16th century, this was the form in which the noun was usually used (in the same way that we still refer to the measles, for instance), as a condition or state of coughing at short intervals. Cough, to refer to an individual act of coughing, followed later; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s earliest evidence comes from 1742.
A cough by any other name
Which other words have been used for cough? The Historical Thesaurus of the OED gives synonyms including hack, hatch, heck, hem, hooze, hough, hoast (as a verb and noun; the noun has the note ‘in some English dialects used only of cattle’; be careful where you use it), yex, and yolk (‘to offer a short cough, as a sheep’; livestock are getting everywhere). While some have roots in other languages, all appear to have an imitative derivation at some point in their development. Then there are particular varieties of cough, from smoker’s cough (a cough caused by excessive smoking) to churchyard cough and graveyard cough (alarmingly, ‘a bad cough, seemingly indicative of impending death’). A similar definition, though without such a clear reason, is given to fox’s cough.
Whooping cough (‘a contagious bacterial disease chiefly affecting children, characterized by convulsive coughs followed by a whoop’) has its fair share of unusual historical synonyms: hooping-cough, chincough, kinkcough, kinkhost, and coqueluche (still the French for whooping cough, and once the hood with which whooping cough patients covered their heads.) More scientifically, whooping cough can be known as pertussis; it is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which derives from the Latin tussis, meaning ‘cough’. For this reason, another – albeit rare and obsolete – synonym for the verb cough is tussicate, with the associated adjective tussicular and noun tussiculation.
Cannons and confessions
Enough of the affliction. What other senses of cough have found their way into the English language? The early 20th century saw cough become used as a noun and verb in relation to bullets and shells (both the sound of these being fired, and the action itself). Similarly anthropomorphizing mechanical entities, engines have been described as coughing as far back as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 (‘A steamboat, coughing along up stream’).
More figuratively, the verb cough is also used as a slang synonym for confess (an early example is found in Josiah Flynt’s 1901 The World of Graft: ‘They put him in the sweat-box, and made him cough’). With ‘up’ or ‘out’, cough has long been used to mean ‘utter or disclose’ – again, an example can be found in Piers Plowman – and latterly has been used of concrete objects or finances as well (‘cough up the cash’).
A more recent use of cough can be found in informal written situations, often surrounded by punctuation for emphasis or differentiation, and that is as an interjection or exclamation intended to express doubt or to imply that a lie has just been told. For example, ‘I didn’t steal biscuits from the tin *cough*’. There are currently over three hundred examples of *cough* in the Oxford Twitter Corpus (which analyses a sample of words used on Twitter), along with sixty examples of *cough cough*.
The idea of transcribing a non-linguistic, human-made sound is not new to the Twitter generation. Ahem (‘an exclamation representing a slight cough or clearing of the throat’) has been transcribed – with the similar intention of expressing hesitation or (mock) disapproval – for several centuries, and is still in frequent use (to return to the Oxford Twitter Corpus once more, there are over four hundred instances.)
But… how do you say it?
Finally, for language learners, cough is one of those dreaded words that ends in –ough. Why dreaded? Well, there are at least ten different pronunciations for this orthographical sequence in British English (and six in American English). To name but five, the ough is pronounced differently in common words such as tough, though, thorough (in British English), thought, and plough – and cough is pronounced differently from all of these (/kɒf/ in British English; /kôf/ in American English; clicking on those IPA spellings will take you to the OxfordDictionaries.com page in question, both of which provide an audio pronunciation).