Nothing to sneeze at

So don’t turn up your nose.

Dear Word Detective: As if by unconscious reflex, I used the phrase “nothing to sneeze at” during dinner conversation. I was then plagued by doubt as to what the expression actually meant, where it came from, and whether I had used it correctly. The doubt was such a strong sensation that I promptly forgot what I had said, so you won’t be able to arbitrate on the propriety of my usage, but I would like to know the meaning and origin of this simile or idiom. — Adam Adamson.

Dontcha hate it when that happens? I mean, you’re sitting there, holding your own in conversation while keeping one eye on the last roll in the basket and hoping for a distraction at the other end of the table so you can snag it without looking like a pig who eats five rolls, and suddenly you realize that your mouth has just said something very strange without consulting your brain first and everyone freezes, waiting for you to finish your sentence, but you can’t talk and the room begins to spin and the next thing you know you’re walking home in the cold, bitter rain and realizing that you never did get that last roll. I hate that.

Speaking of sneezing, as were apparently about to do, I vividly remember talking to a colleague many years ago about a job he once held in a warehouse in the fur district of Manhattan. Yes, New York City has a fur district, on West 29th Street. Anyway, he said that the worst part of the job, which involved wrangling huge piles of mink, sable and the like, was the suffocating clouds of airborne fur. Years later he said that he couldn’t even talk about it without wanting to sneeze.

Of course, the signature characteristic of a sneeze is that it’s not usually something you can decide to do. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the verb “to sneeze” as “To drive or emit air or breath suddenly through the nose and mouth by an involuntary and convulsive or spasmodic action, accompanied by a characteristic sound.” The sound, of course, varies a bit and I have known people whose sneeze sounds a lot like a dog whistle, which I’ve always thought would be a bother for dog owners. All sorts of things can cause a sneeze; many people (including me) exhibit “photic sneezing” whenever they’re exposed to bright light such as the sun or the searchlight of a police helicopter. Don’t ask.

The root of “sneeze” was the Old English verb “fneosan,” which meant “to sneeze or snort,” and came from Germanic root with many relatives in other European languages. The transition from the “fn” beginning of the word to our modern “sn” is a bit hard to explain. In the 14th century we were using the form “fnese,” but by the 15th century “fnese” has been replaced by simply “nese” or “neese,” which eventually became “sneeze.” It is possible that someone had simply misread the “f” of “fnese” as an “s” (making “snese” and eventually “sneeze”). But it’s also possible that during the period when we were using “neese” someone decided to make a more emphatic form of the word by tacking an “s” to the front of the word. In any case, the origin of all these forms, from the Germanic root onward, was “imitative,” i.e., concocted as an imitation of the sound of a sneeze.

“To sneeze at” something or someone is a colloquial usage, first appearing in the early 19th century, meaning “to regard as of little worth; to disparage, disregard or despise” (“It’s a sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at,” 1806). This sense may seem odd, since demonstrating contempt is a deliberate act and sneezing usually isn’t, but it’s helpful to note that the original sense of the verb included “snorting” as well as sneezing, so “to sneeze at” something or someone is rhetorically equivalent to snorting in derision or distaste. The use of “sneeze at” today is almost always in the negative “nothing to sneeze at” or similar forms, meaning that the thing under consideration may appear modest or trivial but is actually at least somewhat important or impressive (“As I am situated, £300 or £400 a-year is not to be sneezed at,” 1813).

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