The sound of clearing your throat, done deliberately to get attention.
We all get a little forgetful sometimes. When things in a plot get really, really complicated, it gets tough to keep track of all the disparate elements. So while Alice should have the sense to search the room for Bob before she starts badmouthing him, hey, nobody's perfect. As a result, she might need a little help from one of her friends. Let's say a simple cough, maybe a cold, paralyzing glare or just saying 'Ahem' loudly and sharply, just to indicate that Alice should do a double-check to realize Bob's kind of standing right behind you. Shouting "COUGH!" is less subtle but at least you'll be heard.
Who provides the Ahem could be anyone, actually. Bob himself might do it, creating a potentially very embarrassing situation for Alice. The explanation also differs. A character who's too much of a Cloudcuckoolander will need it explained, explicitly, why it is they're saying something stupid, ignorant, and in direct contradiction of the facts. A person of normal intelligence is usually savvy enough to immediately go back over their words and realize what the massive intuitive flaw in their previous statement was.
It can also be used to signal that a word is used euphemistically. As referring to a well-to-do older gentleman and his *ahem* housekeeper; or his nephew keeping company with *ahem* actresses and *ahem* models.
Compare *Cough* Snark *Cough* and "Be Quiet!" Nudge.
- In a Star Wars comic, the group were talking about the Death Star's port opening. Tarkin said that no one could make that shot. Then, Darth Vader did the ahem right behind him.
- She-Hulk: In a short story where the main character argued a case before the supreme court, Titania called her out multiple times, and every call out was relayed to her by a clerk who prefaced the message with an "Ahem".
- In one of the Team Fortress 2 comics, Miss Pauling is mentioning how not everyone on the Team is American, earning coughs from the Medic and Heavy and a pointed look towards Soldier, who hasn't quite caught on to them being German and Russian respectively.
- The Plague of the Antibiotic Man: Iris Allen is going to meet with her husband The Flash when she sees him talking to Lois Lane. Feeling a pang of jealousy, she coughs an "A-hem..." right behind them to draw their attention.
- DC Retroactive Superman: As Superman is saying goodbye to Lana Lang, who is being carried away by paramedics after an attack on the Daily Planet, he hears a firm "A-hem" behind him. Upon turning around he comes face to face with Lois, who is not happy about Lana exploiting any excuse to flirt with him.
- Peanuts: Lampshaded in a strip in which Charlie Brown desperately needs to clear his throat during a baseball game, but he knows that if he does, Lucy will think it's a commentary on the fact that she just struck out. Finally he can't hold out.
Charlie Brown: *ahem*
Lucy: I DIDN'T STRIKE OUT ON PURPOSE!
- The Boy Who Cried Idiot: Huggins clears his throat loudly when Lincoln is about to curse.
- In The Legend of Total Drama Island, Chris theatrically clears his throat during the orientation tour when two contestants are talking about something unrelated instead of paying attention. It's one of the first signs of Chris' hammy side.
- My Little Pony: Equestria Girls Rainbow Rocks:
- Rarity uses the euphemistic version when talking to Sunset Shimmer.fun fact
Rarity: Oh darling, you have us! And we've forgiven you for your past — ahem — "boo-boos".
- Also, Twilight Sparkle trying to cover up her crush on Flash:
Twilight: Flash Sentry was asking about me?!? Ahem — isn't that nice.
- Rarity uses the euphemistic version when talking to Sunset Shimmer.fun fact
- Shrek: Lord Farquaad has an Evil Laugh as he approaches the torture table that turns into this as the table is still set for someone of normal height.
- Seen in Austin Powers:
Dr Evil: ... unless the world pays us a hefty ransom!
Number 2: [coughs] That already happened.
- Jeff Goldblum's dad doing this in Independence Day to the President. Multiple times.
- In King Kong (2005), Ann mistook someone for Jack and was babbling about how he didn't fit the stereotype she'd been expecting, when the real Jack snapped his book shut behind her; she turned to see that he was the exact stereotype she'd been describing. Not awkward at all.
- The protagonists of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers kiss each other passionately after the climax, the police chief tries to get their attention with ahems.
- The original version of The Producers has Leo Bloom doing this while going over Max Bialystock's account. When he actually switches to saying "cough, cough", Max delivers this precious insult:
Max: I assume you are making those cartoon noises in order to attract my attention. Am I correct in my assumption, you fish-faced enemy of the people?
- Horatio Hornblower's Verbal Tic, "Ha—h'm", often used to fill the silence when he can't think of quite what to say. While this allows him to build an image as The Stoic, he is thrown off when Barbara Wellesy figures it out and mocks him gently for it. She apologizes for it immediately, however.
- A. Bertram Chandler's Commodore Grimes, being Horatio Hornblower In Space, has his own Verbal Tic, "Mphm".
- Harry Potter:
- Umbridge: "Hem Hem". Interesting in this case because the points she makes are rarely obvious — often she has to do it a couple of times before anyone will pay attention to her. Partly because it sounds like a cough, partly because none of the teachers will pay attention to her if they can avoid it. This is obviously to her advantage, though; she uses it to slowly kill whatever conversation was taking place and then holds the floor. One teacher (McGonagall) ignores her after multiple coughs and then finally offers her a cough drop.
- Ginny does an imitation of Umbridge's cough in Order of the Phoenix. In fact, it's such a good imitation that those who heard her freak out at first before they find out it's her and laugh.
- The "using a word euphemistically" version appears in rather punny fashion in several books. "They call themselves seamstresses, hem hem." The "Seamstresses' Guild" is the Discworld's Band of Brothels.
- In Wyrd Sisters, a guard dramatically clears his throat while trying to work up the nerve to arrest Granny Weatherwax, a task he, as a native Lancrastian who knows to fear and respect witches, is highly reluctant to do. Granny suddenly appears behind him and remarks "That's a nasty cough you've got there, you did right in coming to me."
- When Colon is listing the various groups using a certain meeting room in Guards! Guards!, he refers to "The Ankh-Morpork Fine Art Appreciation Society, hem hem". Vimes stops him to ask what the "hem hem" was about, and is told that the Fine Art Appreciation Society are a group of men who paint nudes, but some of them don't even have any paint.
- In The Science of Discworld, Ponder Stibbons uses this in an attempt to get the senior wizards' attention. All that happens is the Senior Wrangler offers him a cough sweet.
- Who Wet My Pants: One of Reuben's friends clears their throat when they notice he wet his pants.
- Cowboy Bebop (2021). In the first episode, Jet is getting information from The Bartender on the man they're looking for. At a certain point in the conversation she gives this trope and rubs her fingers together, indicating that she wants to get paid if Jet wants any further information.
- Our Miss Brooks: Often done by Mr. Conklin. For example, when Miss Brooks accidentally telephones him in "Wake Up Plan".
- Seen in Friends:
Monica: No, look, she's obviously unstable, okay? I mean she's thinking about running out on her wedding day.
[Rachel slowly turns and glares at her]
Okay, fine! But I mean, look at the position she's putting him in! What's he gonna do? Ross is gonna run over there on the wedding day and break up the marriage?! I mean, who would do that?!
[Rachel again turns and glares at her in disgust]
Okay, fine, all right, but that's y'know, it's different! Although it did involve a lot of the same people.
- Jon Stewart, doing a silly impression of Sam Donaldson when Peter Jennings "ahem"s him that Donaldson is there.
- From British show Misfits:
Nathan: I mean we did sod all with our powers but at least we never abused them. We never raped or murdered anyone.
[everyone looks at him]
Curtis: [points at Alisha] She raped me! And we killed loads of people.
Nathan: Yeah, but... we're the good guys.
- In fairness to Nathan, the others had probably kept the rape incident to themselves up until then. Also, as for the people they killed, those wouldn't fit the category of murder because they were in self-defense.
- Torchwood has this gem in the episode "Sleeper". Particularly amusing considering the punchline comes from snarky but usually private Ianto, and is one of the only times Jack ever looks uncomfortable, particularly regarding the details of his love life.
Woman: [to Jack] Your bedside manner's rubbish.
Gwen: So are his manners in bed. Or, so I've heard.
Ianto: Oh, they are. I remember this one time when—
[Jack loudly coughs and changes the subject]
- Gary in Men Behaving Badly series 4, after being dumped by Dorothy:
Tony: [on phone] Gary's been behaving like an arse!
Tony: I mean a nice arse!
- Hogan's Heroes has an episode where Col. Klink goes on vacation to a ski lodge. He ducks repeated phone calls from Gen. Burkhalter and tells the desk clerk about how Burkhalter can't do anything without him, not realizing Burkhalter is standing right behind him.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "The Zeppo", Xander is involved in a Trapped by Mountain Lions plot, with The End of the World as We Know It presented as the unimportant B-story. At one point he walks right into the middle of a classic Buffy/Angel melodrama, with mutual Love Confessions and declarations that a Heroic Sacrifice is The Only Way. After making a half-hearted attempt to bring up his own problems Xander leaves, and the romantic music commences again as Buffy and Angel start up exactly where they left off.
- On an episode of The Mr. Potato Head Show, Mr. Potato Head has turned his house into a reality show, and then manipulated his friends into fighting each other to make things more interesting. When he feels bad about it he holds a meeting to clear things up. He says "ahem" to get their attention, but they're arguing too loud to hear him, so he yells "I SAID A FREAKIN' AHEM!!!" at the top of his lungs.
- In Disco Elysium, coughing and throat-clearing appear frequently as part of the game's mostly realistic diction, written "*khm*" rather than "Ahem."
- In Discworld, Rincewind discovers the dragon's hoard and begins celebrating, saying that the riches are his and no big ugly scaly dragon is going to stop him. A deep "Ahem" and a quick pan of the camera shows the dragon is right there, causing Rincewind to try and backtrack hurriedly.
- Mass Effect 3: In the Citadel DLC, your entire team (and Wrex) are going to storm the Citadel archives. However, you can still only have two squad mates with you. So, you are you going to bring?
Pizza Delivery Volus: Ahem. Whose going to pay for this?
- Done a few times throughout Tales of Monkey Island. There is one part in Chapter 5 when, after Guybrush thanks Morgan for opening the Crossroads, she gives out an "ahem", which, in the subtitles, is stated as "*clears throat*".
- The Spy from Team Fortress 2 at the beginning of the "Meet The Spy" Video when the briefcase is found. Followed by "Gentlemen?"
- Marvin Grossberg from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has a signature, exaggerated *Ah-HHHHEM!* from off-screen as one of his Catch Phrases.
- In the visual novel Lucy ~The Eternity She Wished For~, the titular character is fond of doing this, usually accompanied with a knowing smirk on her face.
- In Melody, MC clears his throat to get Melody's and Sophia's attention during their hello hug, prompting Melody to introduce him to Sophia.
- Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures, Biggs ordered his Dragon, Dee, to "dispose of" Alexsi. Alexsi is Dee's (adopted) daughter.
Biggs: Hmmm? Oh, yeah! The daughter thing. Right. My bad there. Well, then! I guess you're free to go! Have a nice day!
- Last panel of this page of Girl Genius (2008 Xmas break story)
- The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob! has a Starfish Alien named "Ahem," whose name is pronounced like someone clearing his throat.
- In Gunnerkrigg Court, Reynardine The Great is caught playing with dolls by Annie, as she comes up behind him with a quiet "Ahem". Here.
- Slice of Life: Twilight Sparkle does one of these when she's trying to get the Cakes' attention.
- In The Handbook of Heroes, when Witch catches Antipaladin baby-talking to a puppy.
Antipaladin: Who's a good dog? Who's a good boy? Who...
Antipaladin: Who's a bad dog? Who's a dag nasty evil pup? Is it you? Yes it is.
- Averted in Futurama, in the episode "How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back", with Bender going to the rest of the crew about Fry sleeping with Morgan Proctor, and Amy *hem hem*s.
Bender: [reaching behind him] Oh, crap, is she behind me?
Morgan Proctor: No, I'm in front of you.
- Played for Laughs in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Make New Friends but Keep Discord", when Discord tries to get Fluttershy's attention at the Gala. He keeps turning it up until he's outright coughing and hacking.
- Phineas and Ferb: In "Bee Day", Ginger does this to bring Isabella to her senses when she gets lost in "Phineasland" again.
- During an Imagine Spot on Rocko's Modern Life regarding a potential career as a lounge singer, Filbert only manages to get out an "ahem" to the microphone before the crowd turns on him with Torches and Pitchforks.
- The Secret Saturdays: After discovering that his brother-in-law's girlfriend was an employee of one of the villains, Doc says to him:
Doc: I'm sorry about Abbey.
Doc: I mean, if anybody in that relationship was gonna be secretly evil, I'd have put my money on-
[his wife pokes him]
Doc: [clears throat] Well, we'll leave it at "sorry".
- SpongeBob SquarePants:
- In "Karate Choppers", Mr. Krabs does this to get SpongeBob's attention when he catches him using karate to make sandwiches at a picnic. Hilariously, he says it as "Bluhahe"
- In "Krabby Land", one of the kids does this when overhearing Mr. Krabs say that he doesn't care about the children and that he's using them to get money from their parents. Realizing that he's been caught by said children from behind him, he tries to convince them that he has to go to the bank. Considering Mr. Krabs' true intentions, this doesn't end well for him.
- In "Krusty Krushers", Mr. Krabs does an actual one to get SpongeBob and Patrick's attention after observing their first failed attempt at fighting their wrestler opponents, which is fake wrestling. This is something Mr. Krabs doesn't approve; he only wants them to win at wrestling so he can get the one million dollar prize.
- In "Company Picnic", SpongeBob does this when he overhears Plankton's plan to use his company picnic to get Mr. Krabs and Squidward to work for him, realizing the whole thing was a scam.
- Xiaolin Showdown:
- Omi is picked to stay behind from a Shen-Gong-Wu search to watch Dojo:
Omi: What!? Why must I stay and Raimundo go? He was the last to make it to apprentice, and nobody thought he would make it!
Omi: ...Uh- er- that is... except for me?
- Omi explicitly states "You know, I'm standing right here."
- Omi is picked to stay behind from a Shen-Gong-Wu search to watch Dojo: