Friday, September 27, 2013

The Expostulation Surveyed

Ever noticed how many kinds of sneezes there are?

The word sneeze has precious few synonyms. There's sniffle, snuffle, snort, sputter, wheeze, whoosh, sneer and puff. But none of these really is an equivalent noun. Most of them seem to be a description of the sound. In English, onomatopoeia refers to a word that "sounds like" what it means. But onomatopoeia is of course a Greek word (ὀνοματοποιία), a compound of "name" and "I make". Thus the Greek word actually means to "create a name"--not a word that imitates a sound. We actually misuse the original meaning of onomatopoeia; but that's a common thing in language: distortions and misapplications are happening all the time, either through creative redefinition or ignorance. Ignorance could be a driver of useful simplification, though it can also create havoc, as words are abused and lose their accuracy.

I've catalogued a lot of the kinds of sneezes there are, through simple observation. Types of sneezes seem to organize themselves into the following categories:




Stiflers are people who for one reason or another want to deny or suppress their sneezes. They may think that sneezing in public is not hygienic (spreading germs), or is indelicate (rude), or they're uptight and want to control their natural nervous energy. Stiflers will often use their hands to pinch their upper lip, or to put pressure on their nostrils. I've even seen some people make fists and close their eyes tightly, in an effort to hold down a sneeze, as if they were concentrating on a pain, or on some especially resistant mental quandary.

The Sprayers like to--or feel no alternative to--let it all hang out, so to speak. They accept the sneeze as a natural occurrence, even of enjoyment, and they welcome the sensation of release it provides. Snuff, of course, the finely ground tobacco powder, popular in Europe during the 16th to 19th Centuries, was an inducement to sneezing. Art and literature contain many representations or mentions of snuff-takers. The artificial inducement of the sneezing reflex is something which came to be identified with snuff, though it doesn't seem to have been the point--sniffing snuff was just a way of ingesting nicotine. Sprayers will either sneeze openly, or hold their hand or a handkerchief or tissue to their nose, to prevent the unwanted spread of the spittle or snot into the air around them. Snot could of course be added to the list of words that refer to or suggest sneezing.

Virtuosos are sneezers who make a veritable performance of a sneeze. With the consciousness of the approach of a sneeze, they engage in a "warm-up" including an intake of breath or a straightening of the back and neck, and then express the sneeze through both the mouth and the nose, even making singing or wailing or humming sounds during the performance. These people have taken spraying one step further. Sneezing, after all, is akin to having a small orgasm. Our autonomic nervous system, which is largely involuntary, runs the heart, breathing, swallowing, sexual arousal, as well as sneezing.

The capitulation to sneezing--or even the greeting of it--might be considered as a symptom of personality type. Stiflers may be people who habitually conceal their feelings, or at least any histrionic demonstration of them, as if they were "in church" all the time. Sprayers and virtuosos may be more uninhibited, more likely to express their emotions, or more forward in their human interaction. These are merely speculations, you understand, though I think many people would agree.

Then there are the variations in the kinds of sounds that sneezers make:






Stiflers are often chirpers. Women, especially, will often make a high-pitched "choo" or abbreviated "chuffing" sound. Since sneezing is associated with illness, the addition of a high-pitched note to a sneeze is perhaps an attempt to make the sneeze seem ephemeral or innocent, rather than the symptom of infection. Really sweet high-pitched "ah-choo" stiflers are a delight to listen to.

Grumblers are people with deeper voices, who seem to be holding the sneeze below the voice box, then, reluctantly, capitulating to it but with the "protest" of a kind of cough or grunt. They may be especially willful types, who want to master the body's unruly tendencies. Actually, grumblers are related to coughers, who may try to turn a sneeze into a cough, believing or feeling that that is a small victory over a full-blown, no-holds-barred, sneeze.

Hissers make sibilant sounds--s's or z's or whirring sounds--often with just a hint of a tone underneath. These variants often seem deliberate, as if the sneezer wants to "silence" the sneeze into a toneless rush of air.

Gulpers may be related to whoopers. Whooping is not accurately sneezing, but many sneezers may employ a kind of whoop voice wave sound, either as a build-up to the sneeze, or as an enhancement of the performance. The build-up is a common characteristic of many Sprayers and Virtuosos, who seem to be adding an enunciatory fillip to the impending act, or to give it a little boost of energy.

Pyrotechnics are the real virtuosos of sneezing. They regard sneezing as the opportunity literally to ex-press themselves, and will voice loudly and vehemently, or even operatically, through the sneeze, from build-up, release and sighing aftermath.

I have also noticed a variation in the number and frequency of sneezes. My wife, for instance, who was once a stifler but now tends towards chirping, always sneezes in groups of three. I seem to be either a one sneeze guy, or a two sneeze guy. Having more than two sneezes in quick succession makes me feel light-headed or even dizzy. I've always been a sprayer, though of course I always try to contain the spray, unless I'm outside or alone somewhere. Getting to have a really intense sneeze, outside, is actually a pleasure.

Physiologically, the sneeze is the body's way of expelling unwanted matter from the air passages. We can't reach in and clean the nasal passages, so the body needs to have a way of dealing with stuff in there. Nasal discharge helps lubricate the soft sensitive lining of the nasal cavity, to gather up dust and pollen and other substances that may irritate. When a boy, I had allergies to dust and cat-hair and certain pollens. In my thirties, I finally outgrew them, and have happily lived with two or three indoor cats for the last 30 years with no ill affects.

No one enjoys the feeling of being ill with the flu, and sneezing with the affects of nasal or throat infection is no fun. But sneezing as a momentary event or minor occurrence is perfectly natural, and not the evidence--as it was once thought to be--that one has been inhabited by a satanic influence. Even today, in our very post-superstitious world, people will obsessively exclaim "bless you!" if they hear you sneeze, as if the saying were a little prayer for righteous virtue. Some years ago, when I worked for the government, I had a Chinese client with the name Ah Chui. He was a nondescript and polite little man. In Chinese, the word for sneeze probably doesn't sound anything like "ah-choo!" since it is recognized that different cultures actually "hear" things differently.

Do people in other cultures sneeze in characteristic ways, different from our own? Is sneezing--the manner of it--something we "learn" to do at an early age? Is it possible to learn to discipline the body to suppress the sneeze impulse deliberately? These are important questions which remain to be answered. For my part, I'm neutral on the issue of sneezing. I don't want to sneeze more, but if a sneeze comes, I'm not opposed to experiencing it, without attempting to suppress it. On the other hand, I'm wary of repeated sneezing, which is often the harbinger of the coming of a case of flu.

Bless you! 

No comments: