Daily Archives: January 26, 2015

sputum

Got on the bus. Got a nice seat at the front of the raised section at the back. Nice and warm there.

Someone else got on and sat behind me. Then coughed. And coughed. And then coughed again.

I got up and moved to the back of the back, so no one could be coughing on my neck.

By the time we got to the subway station, there were three people in front of me all coughing. And one over to the right. All coughing forwards, at least, but coughing and coughing and also coughing and occasionally coughing.

Covering their mouths? No. All adults and yet somehow they felt that it was just fine to decorate the ambient atmosphere with their sputum.

Sputum. This is a wet winter word. It’s as medical (and indelicate-sounding) as scrotum, and as phonaesthetically expressive as spit and sputter and spatter and spurt and spew and perhaps spoor (which doesn’t have to do with expectoration but boy does it sound like it). It makes me think of Aquascutum, which is a British luxury clothing brand well known for their rain coats. The name means ‘water shield’: scutum is Latin for ‘shield’, and I sure wish I could have a sputum scutum to protect me from the expectorated phlegm of my fellow travellers. (Did you know, by the way, that Sputnik is Russian for ‘fellow traveller’? Did you also know that I wish these open coughers could be sent up into orbit just like Sputnik? Except of course then these sputumniks would be showering us with their space phlegm.)

In case you’re not quite disgusted enough yet, I think I really must quote the Oxford English Dictionary definition of sputum: “Saliva or spittle mixed with mucus or purulent matter, and expectorated in certain diseased states of the lungs, chest, or throat; a mass or quantity of this.” Oh, sorry, has that put you off your nightcap or your morning toast and eggs? If not, should I point out that sputum can be anagrammed to upmust and put sum and tum’s up? I can ease the tum a bit by mentioning that sputum is taken straight across from Latin for spittle, and is derived from spuere ‘spit’. Or, OK, I guess that may not help either.

Look, sputum is disgusting. It should have a disgusting word for it. I mean, OK, sputum is a reasonably crisp word, no worse phonetically than teaspoon or stooping; it gets its grossness by association. And yes, sure, splutum would be even grosser, because messier. But splutum is not to be found, alas. Well, not so much alas. If it were to be found, it would probably be found on the back of my neck on the bus.