Marginalia, no.131

To NEESE, v.n. [nyse, Danish; niessen, Dutch.] To sneeze; to discharge flatulencies by the nose.  Retained in Scotland.

~ Johnson’s Dictionary

Time proves itself a comedian.  ‘Flatulence’ derives from the Latin flatum (the supine form of flare, to blow), with no specific implication of intestinal gas, even in Johnson’s day.  ‘Afflatus’ rises from the same root, and the ‘divine afflatus’ may originally have been conceived as a heavenly sneeze.  When Telemachus neeses from the other room after Penelope pledges faith in her husband’s return, it’s taken as a favorable sign from the gods.  Also, note Johnson’s customary derision of the Scots, accusing them of holding in their flatulencies; they’re still considered generally retentive.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Marginalia, no.131

  1. Always a tonic to dip into Johnson’s Dictionary (same goes for the notes on Shakespeare). One couplet comes to mind out of the 18th century, from “The Dunciad,” Alexander Pope:

    “And now had Fame’s posterior trumpet blown,
    And all the nations summoned to the throne….”

    “Flatulence” as now understood, and from the Queen of Dullness. Or so I’ve always read “posterior trumpet” anyway.

  2. Heh. Time does prove itself so, although Twain (in the Aeolian Crepitations chapter of “1601”) provides a short list of famous mentions of the other type of flatulencies (including one from Herodotus that I read the other day). Apparently there were plenty of ways to describe the action without adding another word, but langugage is nothing if not generous.

    As for retention (of sneezes), that seems an unnecessary self-infliction of pain. Although, as you imply, that would explain a lot.

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