Spring is in the air – literally – and along with warmer weather and new blooms come the increasing need to sneeze.
But what is essentially an uncontrollable, tickling itch in your sinuses that distorts your face and eventually explodes in a rain of germs and DNA is also the subject of superstition and mythical meanings from cultures throughout history.
Did you know that when you sneeze, someone, somewhere, is supposedly thinking about you? That’s what they say in some parts of Asia, particularly in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Nepalese and Vietnamese culture. A sneeze without a cause was considered a sign that someone was talking about the sneezer at that very moment. In some cultures, this particular superstition has meaning that can be further interpreted: if you sneeze once, then that person is saying something good about you; two times means they’re saying something bad; three times means they are in love with you, and multiple sneezes means you just have a cold.
Some people say that ‘achoo’ is merely the onomatopoeic representation of the act itself. In other words, when you sneeze, the word you say sounds like the noise it makes.
Interestingly, the word reaction to sneezing changes in different countries. For instance, in Cantonese, it’s ‘Hat Chi’, in French it’s ‘Atchoum’, while the Czech say ‘Hepsheek’, the Japanese say ‘Hakshon’ and the Italians say ‘Ecci’.
In the medical world, ACHOO is actually an acronym for an uncontrollable sneezing disorder called Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-ophthalmic Outburst Syndrome. Say that 10 times fast (then sneeze).
In ancient Greece, a sneeze was considered a prophetic sign from the gods. In Europe during the Middle Ages, people believed that sneezing could be fatal, because of the significant amount of breath exhaled during a sneeze.
In Indian, Bengali and Iranian culture, sneezing before the start of any work was a sign of impending bad interruption so, ironically, the sneezer would pause to drink water or break any work rhythm before resuming the job at hand in order to prevent any further misfortune. In Polish culture sneezes may be a sign that a mother-in-law is saying bad things about the sneezing son or daughter-in-law.
Children sneezing also carries superstitious implications. Way back when, British nurses believed that, prior to a child’s first sneeze, children were under a fairy spell. Polynesian people share similar mysticism: a young Maori’s sneeze may signify a visit or some interesting news and, in Tonga, a child’s sneeze means bad fortune ahead for its family.
Saying ‘bless you’ after a sneeze seems to be a common social grace, but this act has dark origins. Around 1500 years ago, people thought that the soul would leave the body when sneezing, leaving a shell which demons could occupy. A simple ‘bless you’ was considered enough to protect the sneezer from these insidious house guests.
Some say the origins of ‘bless you’ came from times of plague. Blessing a sneezer was thought to be enough to prevent them or those around them to not die from the lethal disease.
During the Renaissance, people thought the heart stopped for a very brief moment during the sneeze, so saying ‘bless you’ was a mini prayer for the sneezer’s heart to not fail.
Another popular urban myth is that your eyeballs can pop out of their sockets if you sneeze with your eyes open. Not true. Your eyeballs are firmly plugged into their sockets, so you can sneeze with your eyes open (if you can) or your eyes closed, and not worry about an extra ingredient in your soup.
All superstitions and jokes aside, sneezing is one of the most potent ways to spread disease. A single sneeze produces around 40,000 droplets that can easily spread diseases such as flu, colds and other nasty bugs. When you sneeze, you should do so into the inside of your elbow. That way, you’re less likely to spread germs through human contact or contact with commonly touched objects.