The Grammarphobia Blog

Something to sneeze at

Q: So my wife opened a Snapple and, as she so often does, read the mini-fact printed under the cap: “Real Fact #916 / The scientific term for a sneezing is sternutation.” We both found the phrase “a sneezing” to be displeasing to the ears. Shouldn’t it be “a sneeze” or just “sneezing”? Side note: I really do enjoy that new word, “sternutation,” even if my spell check doesn’t like it.

A: “A sneezing” is not exactly incorrect, but it certainly is clumsy.

People are more familiar with “sneezing” used as a verbal adjective ( “a sneezing session”) or as a gerund with “the” (“the sneezing was incessant”). A gerund, as you know, consists of an infinitive plus   “-ing,” and is used as a noun.

The reason we don’t often see “a sneezing” is that “a sneeze” does the job a lot better. Perhaps the writer originally wrote “a sneeze,” then intended to use “sneezing” alone and forgot to delete the article “a.” Just a guess.

“Sternutation” is indeed a nifty word, though it’s not all that new. It means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the action of sneezing” or “a sneeze.”

It was adopted into English in the 16th century from a medieval Latin word, sternutationem, which is related to the Greek word for “sneeze,” ptarnusthai.

Ultimately, all of these versions—Latin, Greek, and English—are probably echoic, or imitative of the sound the word symbolizes. Many words in English have echoic origins, including “cough,” “giggle,” “cuckoo,” “whimper,” “whistle,” and “tap.”

We’ve written before on our blog about “sneeze” and other words that begin with “sn” and have to do with the nose.

In Old English, the verb “sneeze” was fnesan or fneosan. In Middle English it became fnese, which was altered to snese and finally “sneeze.”

How did the alteration happen? In medieval manuscripts, the letters “f” and “s” were very similar, so the change could have been made unknowingly by scribes. But the new art of printing probably was an influence too.

In his Dictionary of Word Origins, John Ayto explains the evolution of the word’s spelling this way:

Fnese had largely died out by the early 15th century, and it could well be that when printing got into full swing in the 1490s, with many old manuscript texts being reissued in printed form, printers unfamiliar with the old word fnese assumed it had the much more common initial consonant cluster sn.”

One more note. If you like “sternutation,” you’ll like a derivative, “sternutatory,” a word that describes substances that make you sneeze.

Next time you’re in a restaurant and the pepper guy (the peppier, in faux French) offers you an unwanted turn of the grinder, you’ll know what to say: “No thanks, pepper is so sternutatory.”

We could go on, but our noses are starting to itch.

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