origin of the word ‘sneeze’

The obsolete verb fnese meant to sneeze, also to puff, to snort. Of Germanic origin, it is cognate with Swedish fnysa and Danish fnyse, meaning to snort.

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) used the verb in the Prologue to The Manciple’s Tale:

interlinear translation © President and Fellows of Harvard College
By cause drynke hath dominacioun
   Because drink has domination
Upon this man, by my savacioun,
   Upon this man, by my salvation,
I trowe he lewedly wolde telle his tale.
   I believe he would tell his tale badly.
For, were it wyn or oold or moysty ale
   For, were it wine or old or new ale
That he hath dronke, he speketh in his nose,
   That he has drunk, he speaks in his nose,
And fneseth faste, and eek he hath the pose.
   And sneezes fast, and also he has a head cold.

The verb sneeze is an alteration of fnese due to misreading or misprinting it as ſnese (= snese) [note 1] after the initial consonant cluster fn- had become unfamiliar [note 2].

For instance, in William Caxton’s 1483 edition of The festyuall, by the Augustinian canon regular John Mirk (floruit late 14th-early 15th centuries), the spelling is fnese, whereas it is snese in the 1508 edition by Wynkyn de Worde (here, the verb means to snort):

For grete angre [= anger] he wolde snese at the nose and frooth [= froth] at the mouthe for angre.

The verb fnese having gone out of use early in the 15th century, its place was mainly supplied by neeze, meaning to sneeze, first recorded around 1325. The adoption of sneeze was probably assisted by its phonetic appropriateness, that is to say, it may have been felt as a strengthened form of neeze.

Of Germanic origin, the verb neeze is cognate with Dutch niezen, German niesen, Swedish nysa and Danish nyse, which all mean to sneeze (the Germanic base is probably an imitative formation; the possible relationship with the base of fnese is uncertain).

The verb neeze is now mainly used in Scotland, northern Ireland and northern England. For instance, Caroline Macafee recorded the forms neeze and neese in A concise Ulster dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Note 1: The first letter of ſnese (= snese) is the long s, i.e., a lower-case form of the letter s, printed ſ, and formerly used at the beginning or in the middle of a word.

Note 2: The initial consonant cluster fn- is found in another lexical item only, the verb fnast, which meant to breathe hard, to pant. The following is from Havelok the Dane, a romance composed between 1280 and 1290:

Hwan [= When] Grim him havede faste bounden [= tightly bound],
And sithen [= then] in an eld cloth wnden [= wound],
He thriste [= thrust] in his muth wel faste
A kevel [= A gag] of clutes [= rags] ful unwraste [= filthy],
That he mouthe speke ne fnaste.

In the Early Version (around 1382) of the Wycliffe Bible, the Book of Jeremiah, 8:16, thus begins:

Fro Dan is herd the fnesting of his hors…

In the King James Version (1611), the beginning of this verse is:

The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan…

2 thoughts on “origin of the word ‘sneeze’

  1. Thank you for this opportunity,
    As an English to Persian translator I occasionally see many Persian words used in European Languages with small change in sound or writing style, but when I surf their origins on the net I find them referred to old German, Scottish, … rarely to Persian and Sanskrit. For example: Sneeze is used by speakers of Khansari dialect in Khansar city in the west of Iran in Esfahan Province, to the same meaning. Khansari dialect has been used for more than 2000 years.
    I appreciate your attention and reply in advance.
    Sincerely, Mehrdad Eslami.


    1. Mehrdad,
      Thank you for the information you provide. Very interesting.
      Unfortunately, I really don’t know whether there is a connexion between Khansari and English as far as the word ‘sneeze’ is concerned.
      All the best.


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