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.

7 responses to “sputum

  1. You want disgusting? I was sitting on a bus on the way to work about 25 years ago and the woman sitting behind me had a loud, phlegmy cough or sneeze. The was a particularly loud sneeze, and I saw this big wad drop down from over my head onto my wool cap. (There may have been a muttered apology.) It was a cold day but the first thing I did when I got off the bus was to ditch the cap into a trash can. That memory can still raise a shudder. (You apparently missed the opportunity for a “spewed ’em” pun.)

  2. Daniel E. Trujillo M.

    The joke is on you, dear James! It’s 00:05 in Bogotá, Colombia and I already had my nightcap: a nice piece of bread with Nutella accompanied by a cold glass of Coca-Cola. No scutum needed.

  3. That is hilarious. You taught me a new English word. Thank you very much. And you should suggest to all the sputum spitters to visit some tea shop. I tend to believe that people who are half sick the whole winter have to have some secret why it happens to them. It surely did not happen to me.

  4. To my mind ‘phlegm’ is a much more disgusting word than ‘sputum’. If I must discuss the subject at all (not often, thankfully), I use the word ‘sputum’ as a euphemism for the uglier word (which I can hardly bear to write). Just as revolting, is the adjective ‘phlegmatic’ (champ it gel). I can’t bring myself to use the word – guess I’m too emotional.

  5. You win the internet for “sputum scutum” though I would have expectorated nothing less from you. These items are available, just not under that name. http://www.hpnonline.com/inside/2006-09/0609%20images/OR/Precept-15995-Face-Shield-S.jpg You could have dropped one of these over your horking hacker, or put one on yourself in reverse, either would work.

    If you’d like to do some other medical terms in future columns, I have what might be some suggestions that you might find tasty: borborygmi, singultus, dysdiadochokinesia, hemiballismus, eructation, trichotillomania and mittleschmerz.

  6. @sesquiotic,
    My pleasure.

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