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Q:
Where did the phrase “Nothing to sneeze at” come from?
A:

People in older times imagined that a sneeze cleared the mind. It certainly gave them a feeling of exhilaration. Suddenly, 17th century Europe caught a craze for sneezing. It was considered the right thing to do in good society. Indeed, the more you sneezed, the more you proved yourself a member of the privileged class.


To build up this new status symbol, all kinds of devices were used. It was soon realized that snuff caused sneezing. Therefore everyone who was someone carried with him a little box, containing a mixture of sneeze-producing herbs or tobacco. By drawing an ample pinch of it into the nostrils, a hearty sneeze resulted in no time. Of course only the rich and idle had time to sneeze or could afford snuff. Hence the self-induced sneeze became synonymous with aristocratic living. If you were able to sneeze ‘on call,’ you showed audibly your status in society.


But one matter had still to be decided. Just to sneeze haphazardly was not good enough. There had to be a special occasion. Soon sneezing became part of men’s conversation. You indulged in it whenever you wanted to show your disapproval of anything said or, even more so, your lack of interest in the matter discussed. A sneeze was an unmistakable way of saying politely ‘you bore me.’ Consequently and logically, anything ‘not to be sneezed at’ was something really worthwhile.”


From “How Did It Begin?” by R. Brasch (Pocket Books, New York, 1969).

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February 20, 2018

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