The sound of mucus

We all find it a bit difficult talking about the gunk we excrete when we are not well. When I went to see the doctor recently I prepared carefully to explain my symptoms. Our excellent, Old English word, snot, meaning the mucus from our nose is not a word you use to a highly trained and educated medical practitioner. I needed to be more sophisticated.

When I sat down with my doctor and he asked me what my symptoms were I was prepared. I explained that I’d been coughing up a lot of mucus. Yes, I thought that was rather scientific and had hit the right note. However, the doctor was unimpressed.

“Ah, so there has been a lot of sputum?” he queried, not without a hint of one-upmanship.

I really wish that I had seized the moment and had replied: “Not really, doctor, but there has been a lot of phlegm”.  But I was dealing with a professional on his own turf and he gets to choose the jargon. Anyway I was recommended some paracetamol and sent on my way to the pharmacist. However, I was not satisfied with sputum which does not have the historical legitimacy of some of the other snot words.


Mucus is the slimy substance secreted by mucous cells in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and in the lining of the stomach. It is produced to lubricate and protect cells from damage. Snot is nasal mucus. Mucus was derived from Latin and was first used in the 1660s although snot is much older coming directly from Old English, gesnot, which has close relatives in all the Germanic languages.


Saliva is a mixture of mucus and other excretions from salivary glands, which contain the enzymes that start breaking down food. This is known as spit—particularly when expelled from the mouth by footballers—or spittle when it is a bit frothy. Saliva is first used in the 15th century but spit as a verb is from Old English and as a noun from about 1300.


Sputum is the mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory system usually as a result of infection or disease. It is derived from the Latin spuere to spit and was first used in English in 1690.


The word retch, with its throaty sound, from Old English, hraecan, originally meant to clear the throat or to cough up phlegm but in the 1850s it changed meaning to mean attempts at vomiting. This left us without a proper word for coughing up phlegm.


Phlegm is the thick viscous substance secreted by the mucous membranes of the respiratory passages, especially when produced in excessive quantities during a cold. In 14th century English, phlegm was commonly used although it was then spelt as fleem and had derived from old French, fleume. It origins can be traced to the Greek phlegma, for inflammation, heat. The Greek spelling was re-introduced in the mid-17th century to give it more credibility, no doubt.

Gunk and goop

Gunk is a more generic term for an unpleasantly sticky or messy substance. This comes from Gunk, the trademarked name of a thick liquid soap patented in the US in 1932. Goop is a derivative of goo, which originated in the US about 1903 probably from burgoo, a thick porridge.

So next time I talk to my doctor I will make sure that my vocabulary is well primed before the pills are derived for the sound of mucus.