Posted by John Category: words

A short word about the short word, “hm”. Has the online dictionary, pictured above, misdefined it? If “hm” is, as they claim, the sound someone makes when thinking about something — the sound of careful, probably prolonged, consideration, surely it ought to have more m’s. 

Granted they have added a more accurate alternative spelling in brackets — “hmm”. One might still contend, however, that two m’s is not enough. I won’t even dignify “h’m” with a response.

Sorry to sound presumptuous, Mr/Ms. Lexicographer, but I believe the word you’re really looking for is h followed by several m’s. At least 4. “Hmmmm” — now that’s the sound of someone thinking about something. I say at least 4 m’s. “Hmmmmmmmm” wound be an average length consideration for most people. 

And what about someone at the counter of a small newsagents deciding to purchase a bar of chocolate for the first time in many years? So much choice — overwhelmed by indecision  — what to buy? A Flake? A Twirl? A Boost? A red Bounty? A blue Bounty? A Lion Bar? They love ALL chocolate (despite not having eaten any in years). That’s at least a “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”

“Hm” is still a word, mind you — a mild, onomatopoeic exclamation — and a fascinating one at that. Fascinating insofar as there is a smallish gulf between how the word reads and how the word sounds. 

Consider how you feel when you see the word “hm” written down? For me, it feels like a brief unenthusiastic chuckle. It is possible to “hm’ in person, though, with enthusiasm. A written “hm” will always feel unenthusiastic, even passive aggressive. A spoken “hm” can be this, but it can also convey warmth and generosity.

A quick illustration of this difference…

Warm, generous hm…

Cold, passive aggressive hm…

As far as I can tell, the only way for a writer to express a warm and generous “hm” on the page is to awkwardly adverbalise…

“Hm,” he replied, warmly and generously.

Sounds a bit clunky, no? What the writer really needs is a plain-smile emoji to accompany their “hm”.  But the respected author cannot use emojis because they are too old. Isn’t it terrifying how necessary emojis have become, they reflect without bitterness. The young, up-and-coming author cannot use emojis as their publishers cannot justify, artistically or financially, the use of yellow ink. It is a terrible bind authors fond of using the word “hm” in a warm, generous manner, find themselves in.   

I’m not sure about those recorded hm’s. They’re pretty interchangeable, maybe.

“Hm” can also express faint amusement. And sometimes that is all you want to express. Something less than a “heh” but not so much less that you are implying the thing is unfunny. Actually, maybe expressing faint amusement is also passive aggressive. Maybe just don’t express anything. Maybe just walk away, find an empty corner, and don’t express anything to anyone.

Another use for hm: watching comedy with someone else and you’re either too tired and depressed to laugh, or, genuinely unamused, but you don’t want the other person to know you’re tired/depressed/unamused because you are aware how watching television is a shared experience and the energy you transmit affects the moods of others. A simple “hm” can camouflage your own internal strife thereby sparing your comedy watching partner’s feelings, as long as, and this is crucial, your hm is accompanied by a genuine smile. A genuine smile will infuse your hm with warmth and generosity. Even if your comedy watching partner is not looking at your face, they will feel your hm’s lack of accompanying smile. A cold, po-faced “hm” has needlessly spoilt many an introduce-a-friend-to-Seinfeld evening the world over. This all begs the question: have you the strength to muster a genuine smile while tired/depressed/unamused? Life will present challenges.

“Hm” could be also be an onomatopoeic way to describe the sound someone makes when they hum. Though you’d probably need more m’s there too. 

I usually like humming in music. I like music, by the way. There is a piece by Puccini called the “Humming Chorus” which I have alway loved. I first encountered it on a CD of Italian Opera Choruses. It was one of the great CD’s of my adolescence. I discovered it myself. I don’t have posh parents, leave me alone. The CD was pink. I called it the pink CD. It was opera’s answer to the White Album, sort of. I found a picture of the cover online… look! The CD is the same colour as the text box.  

Here is the “Humming Chorus”, so blissfully serene, yet full of yearning.


Seriously, Italian opera choruses are probably the best music of all. And not just the obviously amazing famous ones — Nabucco, Hebrew Slaves and such. There was one on the Pink CD by a lad called Leoncavallo that is just magic. Here it is… very Christmassy! Pure elation.


Back to humming, there’s also “Little Pad” from my beloved Smiley Smile can’t find a YouTube video of it I’m permitted to embed here. 

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci have a nice sad song called “The Humming Song” but as far as I can remember, it contains no humming. I am going to go off and record my own humming song bedroom demo, one with actual humming…


Some time later…

Here’s the song. Not only is it very hard (for me) to hum in tune, the subject matter also turned out to be relatively uninspiring. It is standard fare. I should turn my attentions to writing a (completely apolitical) song inspired by the happy feeling I get watching nineties gameshow hosts place a comforting arm around a contestant’s shoulder as they gear up to play for the big prize at the end of the programme.



I have decided to smile

In case you misconstrue my humming

But then some say it may be wise

To do absolutely nothing

Can you not tell from my expression

I’m not completely unamused

I pride myself on my lack of aggression

I hope you know I’m trying to help the mood