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What is that thing hanging down at the back of my throat?

While admiring my dental hygiene in the mirror the other day, I reflected on the thing that hangs down at the back of my throat. Do you know what it's called?

a) Tonsils
b) Epiglottis
c) Uvula
d) Larynx

Hurray for you, if you guessed c) Uvula. The word comes from the Latin, meaning "little grape", in reference to its shape.

So what does the uvula do?
The uvula is part of the soft palate and is made of muscles and secretory organs. One anatomist has posted pictures showing how he can control his uvula as a party trick.

Some nerve
Touching the uvula results in a gag reflex. I didn't test my own because I gag if anything pokes around near the back of my tongue. Some, however, suggest that massaging the uvula with a cotton swab can stop hiccups.

Gatekeeper
One job of the uvula is to help things from getting into your nasal cavity. But if you've ever laughed while drinking milk and had it shoot out your nose, you'll know that it's not foolproof. Or maybe such people have had their uvula removed, which can happen to people how have problems with excessive snoring.

Can we talk?
The uvula is involved in making certain guttural sounds, used more in many languages other than English. As cartoonists have often shown in cartoons, the uvula is involved with singing. People who have had the uvula removed sound different than before.

Liquid asset
The secretory organs in the uvula can quickly pump out lots of spit, which keeps the pharynx well lubricated. I have noticed that if I haven't given presentations in a while, my throat gets sore when I do one. Maybe my uvula is out of practise.

In a 1948 paper, the authors commented, "On the whole, there is no structure within the confines of the body so little understood and so often abused and maligned as the uvula." 
I hope that now we can begin to show it a little more respect.

Uvula party trick
Hiccup cure
Uvula as lubricator
Respect for the uvula
Uvula as accessory speech organ