Adventures in Etymology – Sneeze

Today we’re investigating the origins of the word sneeze.


Sneeze [sniːz] means:

  • to emit air or breath suddenly, forcibly, and audibly through the nose and mouth by involuntary, spasmodic action.

It comes from the Middle English snesen [ˈsneːzən] (to sneeze), from fnesen [ˈfneːzən] (to sneeze) from the Old English fnēosan [ˈfne͜oː.zɑn] (to sneeze), from the Proto-Germanic *fneusaną [ɸneu̯.sɑ.nɑ̃] (to sneeze), from the Proto-Indo-European *pnew- (to pant, breathe, snort, sneeze) [source].

A related word in Middle English was fnesy [fneːziː] (having a tendency to wheeze or sneeze) [source]. Other words that began with fn in Middle Engilsh included fnoren and fnorten which became snore and snort in Modern English.

An old word for to sneeze in English was neeze, which is or was used in some dialects in the UK. It came from the Middle English nesen (to sneeze), from the Old English *hnēosan (to sneeze), from the Proto-Germanic *hneusaną (to sneeze), from the PIE *(s)knus- (to sneeze) and *pnew- (to pant, breathe) [source].

Words from the PIE root *pnew- include pneumatic and pneumonia in English, pneu (tyre/tire) in French, and πνέω [ˈpne.o] (to blow) in Greek [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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