The human elbow is getting a lot of attention these days, as we collectively fight the global spread of COVID-19.
But what does that word “elbow” refer to? Am I the only one who has spent most of my life using “elbow” to refer exclusively to the pointed part that sticks out when we bend our arm? I don’t think so. Ask any person on the street to point to their elbow and I bet you they’ll point to that pointy part. And yet…
Cough into your elbow
The part of our anatomy where we are supposed to be coughing these days (if we don’t have a tissue) has been confusingly called the “elbow.” This suggests (and this suggestion is born out in ubiquitous public service announcement illustrations) that the “elbow” is the part of our arm that gets enclosed when we bend our arm.
This contradicts everything I have envisioned about elbows for my entire life.
Bump elbows in greeting
On the other hand (or the other side of the elbow), we are also supposed to “bump elbows” instead of shaking hands or hugging—apparently a time-tested greeting that has been called on during epidemics in the past, and has now been resurrected for COVID-19. This is reassuring to me—I can visualize bumping elbows—the pointy part of our arms. Wikipedia provides this crystal-clear illustration of elbows touching in “a stylish bump in 2008”:
But it would be really hard to cough into that pointy part of our elbow. So why are people calling the inside of our elbow the “elbow.”
Maybe we just don’t have a word for it, and it’s just too clumsy to say “the inside of your elbow”. Is it called the “elbow pit”? I googled that and found others had been wondering the same thing: The search bar auto-filled with “Elbow pit what to call it?”
But Wikipedia tells us there is a specific word for that part of our body: the cubital fossa or… elbow pit.
This wikipedia definition of “elbow pit” (aka cubital fossa) as anterior to the elbow was bolstered as my search continued. As I was googling “elbow pit,” the search bar also offered up another top search suggestion: “elbow pit tattoo.” This is what they look like—they are not on a person’s elbow. They are nestled in the elbow pit (where we should also cough):
But for some reason, the public service message is not “Cough into your elbow pit.” Why not? Why have people insisted on calling this simply the “elbow”?
Well, the analogy to a smelly armpit may just be too much for genteel Americans to handle. I mentioned this term, “elbow pit,” to my 12-year-old daughter and she said simply, “Ew. I find that very disturbing.”
Others seem to have also picked up on the disturbing aspects of the phrase, “elbow pit,” as represented, of course, on Urbandictionary.com, where elbow pit is defined. The top definition seems modest and descriptive:
But the third definition goes directly to the problem of armpit associations:
Ew, indeed! The commonsense resistance to a bodily analogy like “elbow pit” is borne out further on Reddit, where at least one thread suggests referring to the elbow pit as, instead, “elbow vagina.”
So, maybe a more expansive working definition of “elbow,” to include the “elbow pit,” has merit. It seems that people who design these public service campaigns would rather be a little imprecise than end up in the “elbow pit” zone of associations. Plain old “elbow” is simpler and conveniently euphemismistic, nipping any of the “elbow pit” or “elbow vagina” undertones in the bud.
Maybe it’s okay, sometimes, to be a little imprecise in our language if the precise language just leads us down a scary path? People might be more likely to cough into something called “elbow” (inaccurately) than to cough into the more accurately named “elbow pit.”
And what if we are talking to kids—those prime germ-spreaders? We don’t want to call it the elbow pit and immediately hear a class of 25 saying “EEEEEEEWWWWWWWW!” Definitely bad PR for good practices.
Well, sometimes we just need to think a little longer (or ask a citizen sociolinguist!) to come up with the most effective phraseology. Fortunately, this Seattle pre-school teacher, Ms. Laurie Goff, seems to have nailed it! She calls it the “cough pocket,” and tweeted a handy video demonstrating exactly what coughing into that cough pocket will look like:
Her accompanying explanation is friendly and convincing: “That’s a cough pocket. It’s on your body! It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s always with you!” Now this video (and not a collection of germs from all her preschoolers!) is going viral, spreading the word about where to cough–arguably more effectively than any inaccurate, euphemistic use of “elbow,” or accurate, but icky, “elbow pit” ever could.
So to the question, how are we supposed to cough into our elbow? Ms. Goff provides an answer: Use your cough pocket!
What are your experiences with the words “elbow,” “elbow pit,” and “cough pocket” (and of course, the “elbow bump”)? Please comment below!