Cough It Up

November 19, 2010

I’ve heard that Eskimos had twenty-seven or fifty-four or thirty-six thousand different words for snow. I’ve also heard that’s a myth, and I can believe that even people who live in a place with permafrost wouldn’t need that many different words for snow, but it also makes sense that they might need to distinguish between at least that many different types of snow. I live in a place where we might get snow twice a year if we’re lucky, and I know there’s dry snow, wet snow, crusty snow, dirty snow, icy snow, and the yellow snow that kids are always trying to eat. What got me thinking about this is that over the past week I’ve had a cold and I’ve been coughing, but the word "cough" doesn’t cover the range of what I’ve experienced any more than the word "snow" covers the different types of snow. I’ve cataloged at least a hundred and eighty nine different types of cough this week. I’ve had wet coughs, dry coughs, single coughs, multiple coughs, coughing from lying down, coughing from sitting up, coughing until I throw up, voluntary coughs, involuntary coughs, throat-clearing coughs, and that weird, painful cough that sounds like an exotic and very sick bird. I would call it a whooping cough, but there’s already a whooping cough. Fortunately I got vaccinated against that because the whooping cough doesn’t sound like it’s nearly as much fun as the name implies.

There should be a term for the sick exotic bird cough, because it’s the worst sounding cough. It’s one I remember having on winter mornings when I was a kid, when it was too cold to get out of bed and go to school. I always thought the exotic sick bird cough should be a get-out-of-school-free card, but somehow my mother was smart enough to know that, aside from the coughing, I felt fine, that it was temporary and that, after getting up and getting dressed and having some breakfast, I’d be over it. And it always did go away, which was disappointing. It seemed like the only winter mornings when I really felt sick were the ones when I didn’t want to be sick. The day of the class Christmas party, for instance, or the day of the school play where I’d have my big break, playing a talking cactus. Those mornings I’d get out of bed without being asked, and if I felt a cough coming up I’d muffle it in my pillow before standing in my room practicing saying, "I feel fine" before going downstairs. Except I had to be careful, because I didn’t want to respond to a question like, "Do you want jam or jelly on your toast?" with "I feel fine!" All I’d really want to do is get through the day, or at least get through the play, scared to death that any time I said, "I feel fine!" someone would put their hand up to their mouth and cough the word "bullshit!" That’s one cough that doesn’t need its own term.

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