‘Sneeze’ and the Mystery of ‘Nothing to Sneeze At’

The etymological exploration of “sneeze” involves a captivating metamorphosis. The journey from the Old Norse ‘fnyse’ to the snorting ‘fnesan’ in Old English showcases the dynamic nature of language. Over time, the initial ‘f’ in ‘fnesan’ was dropped, giving rise to the simpler term ‘nesan.’ By the end of the 14th century, this evolved into the verb “nesting.” The addition of an ‘s’ in the 17th century solidified the word as “sneezing.”

In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne’s “Pseudodoxia Epidemica” became the literary stage for the term “sneezing.” Chapter IX, titled “Of Sneezing,” delves into the origin of sternutating or sneezing. The chapter explores the historical belief that sneezing could prove fatal, adding a layer of intrigue to this commonplace act

The phrase “nothing to sneeze at” is believed to have originated in the late 17th or early 18th century, with roots tracing back to the fad of snuff boxes. These boxes, used for inhaling powdered tobacco, caused frequent sneezing. The act of sneezing after sniffing snuff became a sign of disrespect during conversations. Literary examples, such as Thomas Skinner Surr’s “A Winter in London,” depict this trend in the cultural fabric.

The antonym of the phrase, “not to be sneezed at,” made its print debut in 1799 in John Till Allingham’s play “Fortune’s Frolic.” Allingham, a renowned satirist and humorist, used theatrical platforms like Covent Gardens Theater to present his works. The phrase became a satirical expression, emphasizing the value of something not to be dismissed lightly.

The expression “bless you” after a sneeze, though unclear in origin, has been speculated to relate to freeing the soul. Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding snuff challenges misconceptions about its association with cancer. Scientific perspectives from the British Medical Journal suggest potential benefits, presenting snuff as a possibly healthier alternative to smoking.

Sneezing Facts

  • The speed of a sneeze is astonishing. It can travel at a velocity of up to 100 miles per hour, releasing an impressive force. This fact highlights the importance of covering your mouth and nose to prevent the spread of germs during a sneeze.
  • Believe it or not, exposure to bright light can induce sneezing in some people. This phenomenon is known as the photic sneeze reflex, affecting approximately 18-35% of the population. The reasons behind this response are still not entirely clear to scientists.
  • Just like any other peculiar talent, there are records for the most consecutive sneezes. The current record, as recognized by Guinness World Records, stands at an impressive 978 consecutive sneezes, achieved by Donna Griffiths in the UK from 1981 to 1983.
  • Throughout history, sneezing has been surrounded by superstitions. In ancient Greece, a sneeze was considered a divine sign. Romans believed that sneezing expelled evil spirits, and in medieval Europe, people would often say “God bless you” to safeguard the sneezer from potential illness.
  • The brain plays a significant role in the sneezing process. The act of sneezing involves a complex neural circuit, where sensory neurons detect an irritant, sending signals to the brainstem, which then coordinates the muscular response, resulting in a sneeze.
  • Interestingly, some individuals experience a phenomenon known as “honeymoon rhinitis,” where they sneeze uncontrollably after sexual arousal or orgasm. This rare reaction is likely due to the autonomic nervous system’s interplay.
  • Your sneeze frequency might be influenced by your age. Studies suggest that younger individuals tend to sneeze more frequently than older ones. The exact reasons for this age-related difference are still under investigation.
  • Sneezing serves a biological purpose beyond expelling irritants. It can act as a reset button for your nasal passages, helping to clear mucus and potentially aiding in the removal of pollutants and microbes.
  • There’s a rare genetic condition known as the “Achoo syndrome” or the photic sneeze reflex condition. People with this condition sneeze when exposed to bright light, and it’s inherited in an autosomal dominant manner.
  • It’s nearly impossible to sneeze while asleep. The body’s reflexes, including the sneeze reflex, are usually dormant during sleep. This safeguard prevents unnecessary awakenings due to minor irritants in the air.

The Sinister Roots of “Sneeze” in Ancient Beliefs

Behind the seemingly innocuous act of sneezing lies a dark undercurrent of superstitions in various cultures. In ancient times, especially in Greece and Rome, sneezing was not just a bodily function but a divine sign. Some believed it to be a message from the gods or an omen, associating sneezing with events that ranged from the auspicious to the ominous. This historical context adds a layer of mystique to the origins of the word “sneeze.”

While the phrase “nothing to sneeze at” may sound innocuous today, its origin is intertwined with a rather Machiavellian practice. Emerging in the 17th or 18th century, during the era of snuff boxes, it had connections to social hierarchies and displays of power. Sneezing, induced by inhaling snuff, became a subtle form of disrespect. The act of sneezing during a conversation, especially when the speaker was deemed inferior, served as a non-verbal expression of disdain and superiority.

Sneezing as a Weapon in Social Confrontations

Delving into historical literature, particularly exemplified in Thomas Skinner Surr’s “A Winter in London,” reveals a more sinister side to the act of sneezing. In a society where social status and snobbery were prevalent, individuals would strategically use sneezing, induced by snuff, as a weapon in social confrontations. The intentional sneeze became a tool for expressing contempt and dismissing ideas or individuals deemed unworthy.

The connection between sneezing and social dynamics took a more ominous turn in the life of satirist John Till Allingham. Famed for his satirical works, Allingham engaged in a duel with a critic in a turnip field. The dark humor and absurdity of such an encounter illustrate the extremes to which social confrontations, influenced by snuff-induced sneezing trends, could escalate during that era.

The introduction of snuff boxes into social circles not only popularized the act of sneezing but also contributed to an undercurrent of social strife. The strategic use of snuff-induced sneezing to convey disrespect added a layer of complexity to interpersonal relationships, turning a seemingly harmless act into a weapon of social maneuvering.

Amidst the historical intricacies of sneezing, the expression “bless you” after a sneeze takes on an intriguing dimension. While commonly seen as a courteous gesture, some dark interpretations suggest that it may have originated from a belief that the soul was momentarily vulnerable during a sneeze. The juxtaposition of blessings and potential vulnerabilities adds an ambiguous layer to the legacy of sneezing in various cultures.

Beyond the linguistic exploration, controversies surrounding snuff reveal a darker side. Despite its historical association with social status and etiquette, snuff has faced debates, particularly concerning health. The notion of using snuff as a supposedly healthier alternative to smoking, as suggested in historical perspectives, intersects with controversies around its impact on health, adding a layer of complexity to its cultural legacy.

The dark history of sneezing extends to duels and societal strife, exemplified by satirist John Till Allingham’s turnip field encounter. Controversies surrounding snuff unmask its darker side, challenging historical perceptions of its health benefits. Amidst fascinating facts about sneezing, its ancient superstitions and societal implications reveal a nuanced legacy, adding depth to a seemingly simple bodily function.