Nothing to sneeze at
Well, despite having a flu injection, I have endured the usual round of winter colds. Apart from a runny nose and a sore throat, the most obvious sign of my affliction has been frequent, and volcanic, outbursts of Sneezing. Of course, I use a handkerchief to catch whatever my nose expels but it set me wondering about the origin of nothing to sneeze at which we use to denote that something is worth having or is worthy of our attention.
Sneezing is an affliction which has been with us since the year dot and so it is no surprise that the root of the verb can be found in the Old English word fneosan, which meant to sneeze or snort. During the 15th century the opening f dropped off and nese or neese was used to describe the act of sneezing. At some point thereafter the letter s was added to the opening of the word, giving it a more emphatic form and, to some ears, making it more imitative of the act itself.
Our Phrase first made its appearance in printed form in John Till Allingham’s play, Fortune’s Frolic, first produced at Covent Garden in 1799. There we find the line, “Why, as to his consent, I don’t value it a button; but then £5,000 is a sum not to be sneezed at.” There it is, in all its glory, with the modern meaning of something that shouldn’t be rejected without some careful consideration. The antithesis of the phrase appeared slightly later in A Winter in London by Thomas Skinner Surr, published in 1806. The novel contains the sentence, “He tells me it is the sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at.” That neither usage needed any explanatory gloss suggests that these were phrases with which the audience and readers would be familiar with and that they were part of common parlance.
But why did sneezing come to represent an expression of disdain? Some commentators suggest that the 18th century was an era of volcanic nasal eruptions, courtesy of the habit of taking snuff. Perhaps, if a bewigged gentleman of the time heard something with which he disagreed, he would reach for his snuff-box, inhale the fine grained tobacco that is snuff and sneeze violently. Appealing as this explanation may be, it seems to me to be a bit far-fetched. After all, it would be quite a performance and the time taken to produce a stentorian response would rob the moment of its drama.
It seems to me that the answer is to be found in a parallel phrase, to sniff at. An earlier citation can be found for this phrase, in Jonathan Swift’s poem entitled The Grand Question Debated: Whether Hamilton’s Bawn should be turned into a barrack or malt-house, written in 1729. The Irish satirist wrote, “So, then you look’d scornful, and snift at the dean”, clearly an expression of disdain or contempt. Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution: A History, published in 1837, wrote, “Camille Desmoulins, and others, sniffing at him for it” and, in a passage that the modern reader could easily misinterpret, “Dusky D’Espréménil does nothing but sniff and ejaculate.”
The Swiftian citation suggests that sniffing as a sign of disdain was already established in the mid 18th century. Perhaps the adoption of sneezing was simply a stronger expression of disdain, the explanation being as simple as that. Who knows?
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