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My sister Heidi and I agree that, though we dislike the substance, we like the word.  Somehow, the shape and sound of the word are captivating.  "Phlegm", with its five consonants and one vowel, rolls up out of your throat, flows across your tongue, and issues forth through your lips.  "Phlegm"!  What a singular word!

A curious thing about "phlegm" is that, in two of its adjectival forms, "phlegmy" and "phlegmish", the velar stays hidden, but in the other, "phlegmatic", it comes back to life.

phlegm (n.)

late 14c., fleem, fleume, "viscid mucus, discharge from a mucous membrane of the body," also the name of one of the four bodily humors, from Old French fleume (13c., Modern French flegme), from Late Latin phlegma, one of the four humors of the body, from Greek phlegma "morbid, clammy bodily humor caused by heat;" literally "inflammation, flame, fire, heat," from phlegein "to burn," related to phlox (genitive phlogos) "flame, blaze," from PIE *bhleg- "to shine, flash," from root *bhel- (1) "to shine, flash, burn."

The modern form of the word is attested by c. 1660. In old physiology it was the "cold, moist" humor of the body and a predominance of it was believed to cause dullness, lethargy, and apathy, hence phlegmatic.

phlegmy (adj.)

early 15c., fleumi, "caused by an excess of phlegm (the bodily humor);" mid-15c., "sluggish;" from phlegm (q.v.) + -y (2). In reference to mucous or watery discharge by 1540s.

phlegmatic (adj.)

mid-14c., fleumatik, "having the temperament formerly supposed to result from predominance of the bodily humor phlegm" (cool, calm, self-possessed, and in a pejorative sense, cold, dull, apathetic;) late 14c., "composed of phlegm (the bodily humor); containing phlegm," from Old French fleumatique (13c., Modern French flegmatique), from Late Latin phlegmaticus, from Greek phlegmatikos "abounding in phlegm" (see phlegm). Related: Phlegmatical; phlegmatically.

A verry flewmatike man is in the body lustles, heuy and slow. [Bartholomew Glanville, "De proprietatibus rerum," c. 1240, translated by John of Trevisa c. 1398]



From Middle English flewme, fleume, fleme, from Old French fleume, Middle French flemme (French flegme), and their source, Latin phlegma, from Ancient Greek φλέγμα (phlégma, flame; inflammation; clammy humor in the body), from φλέγειν (phlégein, to burn). Compare phlox, flagrant, flame, bleak (adjective), fulminate. Spelling later altered to resemble the word's Latin and Greek roots.


Another curious aspect of "phlegm", which betokens cold and moist in ancient and medieval humoral medical thought, is that it derives from a PIE root meaning "shine; flash; burn".  This is quite the opposite of what we normally think of as a phlegmatic temperament — calm and composed — or, considered pejoratively, sluggish and indifferent.

Just sayin'.


Selected readings

"Sneeze, hiccup, cough" (12/19/13)

"China and Rome" (2/24/19) — here, here, and here


  1. martin schwartz said,

    February 14, 2021 @ 10:54 pm

    Some thoughts: Have a look at Smegmatic | Word Blog. It does mean 'soapy', this being etymologically based < the Greek smēgma
    'soapy, detergent', against the less tidy medical meaning of smegmatic. There's no word *smegm */smem/ rhyming with
    phlegm, tho they would be in the same smeary semantic (smemantic) field. In the same phono-smemantic field is Russian etc.and Yiddish smork, liquid nasal mucosa'. I assume Sogdian
    smā∂n 'ointment' is smemantically related, even without cognates in *-d-. And having gone east, I notice that Arabic, well versed and even immersed in Galenic humor, has the slightly irregular
    derivative of Greek phlegma, balgham (with gh = a voiced velar
    fricative); thence also the Persian.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Chris Button said,

    February 14, 2021 @ 11:51 pm

    Plenty of 炎 "flames" in Chinese 痰 "phlegm" too.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 12:47 am

    Excellent, Chris! That's extremely interesting.

    Good catch!

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 2:26 am

    To a linguist/phonetician like myself, the word only has three consonants though.

  5. Laura Morland said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 3:42 am

    As for your “just sayin'," the key, to me, is that the Greeks believed that the
    "morbid, clammy bodily humor" was CAUSED BY heat;" (literally "inflammation, flame, fire, heat," from phlegein…).

    The causal effect between heat and phlegmatic behavior is not so obvious to us 21st-century folk, perhaps, unless you have spent time in a hot, humid climate without the benefit of air-conditioning.

  6. yoandri dominguez said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 5:55 am

    @laura morland, wrong; feeling tired is not the same as phlegmatic.

  7. Rodger C said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 7:53 am

    I've seen the word "smegm" at least once, in a British text.

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 10:02 am

    '…with its five consonants and one vowel…'

    In terms of word sound, 'phlegm' has three consonants ([f] [l] [m]), not five. It has five consonants in its orthography, but not in its pronunciation.

  9. Stephen Plant said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 10:30 am

    The Middle French flemme has resurfaced in modern French argot;

  10. Robert Coren said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 10:41 am

    literally "inflammation, flame, fire, heat," from phlegein "to burn," related to phlox (genitive phlogos) "flame, blaze,"

    Hence (I presume) phlogiston. And I assume the plant genus phlox comes from that same Greek root, although there are other flowers that I think are more aptly described as "blazing".

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 11:02 am

    5 consonants
    3 consonants
    noted by two commenters

  12. OvV said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    Probably found a homophone for phlegmish: Flemish, i.e. off or belonging to Flanders (native: Vlaanderen), the Dutch speaking part of the kingdom of Belgium, or its language.

  13. a s said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 4:03 pm

    I for one always thought it was pronounced "fleggum" until I looked it up just now.

    Also, it kind of looks like it's misspelled and should be "phelgm", but not sure why.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 5:28 pm

    @a s

    Bless your honest soul!

    I suspect that those who would pronounce it as "fleggum" are legion, but few would admit to it unless caught in phlagrante delicto.

  15. Heidi L Mair said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 6:11 pm

    Fascinating post. Phlegmatic humor has been associated with kapha dosha in Ayurveda.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 8:03 pm

    Feeling congested and sluggish?

  17. Keith said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 1:55 am

    @ Martin Schwarz "In the same phono-smemantic field is Russian etc.and Yiddish smork, 'liquid nasal mucosa'."

    For me, 'smork' looks very similar to Danish and Norwegian "smør", Swedish "smör", which in English is "butter". I've always assumed that those Scandinavian words would be related to English "smear".

  18. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 1:59 am

    As a long term expat I feel I have an excuse for getting it wrong sometimes.
    Like when I get picked up on "paradigm" (that silent "g" again, but cf "paradigmatic"), or "egregious".
    Serves me right for using such pretentious vocabulary.

  19. Thomas Rees said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 6:08 am

    In French it’s flegme. The ‘ph’ didn’t stick, but the ‘g’ did. I've never heard it in the wild, but apparently it’s pronounced /flɛɡm̥/. So the “fleggum” folks are just using a fancy French word!

  20. Robert Coren said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 11:58 am

    Peter Grubtal: Reminds me, somewhat tangentially, of a colleague at my last place of work, who was Polish and spoke accented but fluent English; he had two odd quirks, one spoken and one written, that I have often wondered in retrospect whether it would have been kind to correct: He pronounced vague with two syllables (rhyming with ague), and he spelled rogue (as in the frequently-used phrase "rogue process") as "rouge".

  21. Batchman said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 12:32 pm

    There may be no "smegm", but there is "smegma." The origin of the substance is not nasal, however. I leave it to the reader to do a Google search on/for it.

  22. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 2:23 pm

    Robert Coren
    Yes, I worked with non-native speakers who were expected to have (and had) a pretty good command of English. One of them drew my attention to the famous "Dearest creature in creation…" epic, to show me what they were up against with English orthography. I expect it has featured in LL more than once.

  23. Chris Button said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 4:44 pm

    Regarding 炎 "flames" in Chinese 痰 "phlegm", it's certainly not coincidental. There's a much bigger word family supporting the association.

    @ Peter Grubtal

    Regarding paradigmatic for paradigm, there are plenty such cases to help learners remember silent consonants in spelling (e.g. bombastic for bomb or acknowledge for know, etc.)

  24. djw said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 5:32 pm

    Hmm…My error is the opposite of a s's: I have never pronounced the g in either phlegmatic or paradigmatic, and I don't think I've ever heard them pronounced here in Texas. I've always known it was silent in phlegm and paradigm, so it never occurred to me that it might be pronounced in other forms.

  25. maidhc said,

    February 17, 2021 @ 3:29 am

    The Irish term for jelly-fish is smugairle róin, which literally means "seal snot". It never occurred to me until this post that smugairle has a similar shape to the smeg- root (so popular on Red Dwarf).

  26. Ioanna said,

    February 18, 2021 @ 3:12 pm

    "Full of phlegm and smegm, signifying nothing."

  27. Joyce Melton said,

    February 19, 2021 @ 12:16 am

    Is there an invisible particle sm/shm/schm here?

    Smudge, schmuck, smear, schmear, smegma, smooch, smug, smack, and attestations in other languages than English and Yiddish.

    There's also the use in humorous and dismissive language, as in: "Oedipus, schmoedipus, as long as he loves his smother."

    If there is, what is it's smemantics?

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