By Dr Oliver Tearle
The Old English word for ‘sneeze’ was fnēsan. This word, believe it or not, is distantly related to the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘breath’, whence we get ‘pneumonia’ and ‘pneumatic’. During the Middle Ages, the Old English term mutated into fnese.
How did we get from fnese to sneeze? Well, a well-known problem in medieval manuscripts is that the letters f and s could easily be mistaken for each other, given the way they were written. There’s a famous episode of the British sitcom The Vicar of Dibley where the parish verger (who isn’t the brightest person) confuses the two letters, and narrowly avoids an embarrassing mistake involving the word ‘succour’ while reciting a Bible passage on television. Reading old manuscripts or inscriptions can therefore be confusing, or perhaps that should be, consufing.
Although we cannot be sure this is how the f became an s and fnese morphed into sneeze, it’s one likely explanation, and perhaps the most probable. Both words are, to an extent, onomatopoeic, in that they imitate the sound of a sneeze, and the harsh breathing sound that can accompany sneezing.
And the possibility that fnese may have been simply misread as snese by some scribe need not surprise us. Such misreadings of manuscripts or texts are commoner than we tend to realise. Dr Johnson encountered the word ‘foupe’ in William Camden’s Britannia (the first chorographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, mapping out its various regions), and included it in his famous 1755 Dictionary, defining ‘foupe’ as ‘To drive with a sudden impetuosity’ and adding that it was ‘a word out of use’. In fact, he had misread Camden’s ‘soupe’ (a dialect word meaning ‘swoop’) as ‘foupe’.
Curiously, the Oxford English Dictionary includes an entry for ‘foupe’, but notes that it was an error on Johnson’s part.
However, things are a little more complicated than this in the case of ‘sneeze’ and ‘fnese’, because there was another obsolete regional dialect word, neeze, which also referred to the act of sneezing and was found in various parts of Britain and Ireland. The OED notes that the word probably came from an early Scandinavian word, and invites us compare Old Icelandic hnjósa, the Norwegian nyse, the Old Swedish niusa, and the Danish nyse, all of which meant ‘sneeze’.
Alternatively, the English ‘neeze’ may have descended from a Germanic word, since there are cognates in numerous Germanic languages, such as the Middle Dutch niesen, the Middle Low German nēsen, and the Old High German niesan.
In short, then, we cannot say for sure whether fnese morphed into sneeze through some misreading or mistranscription, or whether the process was a more gradual and collective rejection of the former in favour of the latter (whose double sibilance people may have found more effective at imitating the sound of a sneeze). Certainly, as John Ayto observes in his invaluable Dictionary of Word Origins, fnese had pretty much died out by the early fifteenth century, and when printing with movable type arrived in England later that century, the old manuscripts, complete with their instances of fnese, were replaced by printed texts which replaced fnese with sneeze.
The formal term for sneezing is ‘sternutation’, attested from 1540 and derived from Latin (and ultimately from ancient Greek). ‘Achoo’, meanwhile – the most famous onomatopoeic rendering of a sneeze – is Victorian in origin, first recorded in 1843, while ‘atishoo!’ first emerged in the 1870s.
To ‘sneeze at’ something, meaning to scoff at or disregard it, was in use by the early nineteenth century, though it only survives in the negative (‘that’s not to be sneezed at’). ‘Sneeze’ was also sometimes used as a slang term for ‘snuff’, and a ‘sneezing-coffer’ was a snuff-box. ‘Sneeze-larkers’, meanwhile, were Victorian thieves who would disable their victim with snuff or pepper, making them sneeze, so they could grab their belongings while they were momentarily incapacitated.
The practice of saying ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes (or, in German, ‘gesundheit’, meaning ‘health’, etc.) originates in ancient superstitions. The habit may have been down to a Pope: during the Roman Plague of 590, Pope Gregory I commanded people to pray for divine deliverance from the epidemic, ordering that, whenever someone sneezed, they should be blessed straight away.
Indeed, it’s an idea that one’s soul escaped during a sneeze (a moment when the sneezer is off their guard, as it were) caught on, and saying ‘bless you’ was a way of protecting the person’s soul from the Devil, who would otherwise try to seize it.