A sternutation is a sneeze or act of sneezing. That which causes sneezing may be called a sternutatory or sternutory. Finally a sternutator is a substance that causes nasal irritation, especially a poision gas causing irritation of the nose and eyes, pain in the chest and nausea. Though the term sternutator only was invented at the end of WWI (for obvious reasons), the other terms have a much older history in medicine and literature. This essay will follow paths laid out for us by these words.
Sternutory is attested as early as the 15th century in a medical treatise: "Put vinegre or mustard in his nose..And giffe hym some (other?) sternutoriez." Why? Well, as an 1842 encyclopedia has it: Sternutories are chiefly employed..either to restore suspended respiration..or to dislodge some foreign body." A quotation from 1616 brings us into the history of medical remedies for bodily infirmities: "For the curing of this bodily infirmity, many remedies are prescribed..with scarification, gargarismes and sternutatory things."
The word scarification suggests something different from either "to make a scar" or to "to scare." Scarification was a medical remedy attested by that word as early as the 16th century at least and means "to make a number of scratches or slight incisions in a portion of the body or a wound." From 1533: "In what member the bloud is gathered, the body being fyrst pourged by scarification, the grefe maye be cured." The word scarify probably derives from the Greek "skariphos," which means "pencil" or "stylus," and thus the act of scarifying is the application of the point of the stylus to the body. From a 16th century medical book on "terapeutyke," which exposited the work of the great classical physician Galen, we have the following: "If it appeare pale,..it must be scarified and made to blede." Thus, this is one of the remedies provided for bodily infirmity.
A second, according to the quotation above, is gargarism. Gargarism is an onomapoetic formation from Latin, Greek, French and Italian and is replaced by gargle in modern usage. From 1562: "How prepare you a Gargarizme or washing Gurgle for the Mouth and Throate?" Just as the word "barbarism" was invented by the Greeks to imitate the sound that the Persians and others were making in their hearing ("Bar Bar"), so the Greeks must have invented the term gargarisma to refer to anyone's gutteral gurgling. "I just can't stand the barbarisms and the gargarisms of that foreign group," must have been the slogan for ancient anti-immigration movements.
Returning to Sternutatory
As you know, however, I am partial to literary usages of new and strange words. So we have them here. From a little-known work of Thackeray in the 1840s: "He..was seized with a violent fit of sneezing..(sternutatory paroxysm he called it)." Or, from the mid-Victorian novel Curate Cumberworth (1859), we have: "Miss Martha replied by a sneeze. A terror seizing me lest this sternutatory conclusion might be a preliminary to another fit of hysterics, I immediately took my leave." Finally, at least on this word, let's learn another word. A sternutatory might also be defined as a "substance that causes sneezing; esp. a drug, usually in the form of a powder; an errhine."
I love the sound of that word--errhine (which does not appear in the Collegiate, for example). Derived from the Greek preposition "en" and the word for nostril "rhin," errhine means: "a medicine which when applied to the mucous membrane of the nose increases the natural secretions and produces sneezing." The first attestation of errhine is from 1601, and is in an interesting quotation: "Errhines be devises made like tents, sharper at one end than the other, to bee put up into the nose." Wow, a "tent-shaped" device stuck up your nose to cause sneezing. Just think if Patrick Henry had been caught up with this reality, he might have had a slip of the tongue and said, "Give me liberty, or give me an errhine!"
Finishing with Sternutation
Let's close by returning to the act itself--a sneeze. I think sneezing is one of the most underrated pleasures of life. And, a person's manner of sneezing is almost as various as people's signatures. Just watch a sneezer sometimes. There are the typical movements, such as the held breath and the head slightly jerked back, but after those commonalities, the varieties are nearly endless. Some try to stifle the sneeze; some try to blow the whole room apart. Some daintily say "choo," while others give a big, throaty "AH" before hurling their phlegm particles across the room. Children now are taught to sneeze into the arm of their shirt. Perhaps this will lead to uniformity in sternutation in the future. After all, since standardization is so prevalent in our culture, why not explore it in the realm of sneezing?
Let's give a few quotations that use the term sternutation, which goes back to the 16th century in English. From Sir Thomas Browne (1646): "The custome of saluting or blessing upon that motion..is..beleeved to drive its original from a disease, wherein Sternutation proved mortall." I don't know the story...do you? Or, from Pope, a century later: "I hope you have upon no Account promoted Sternutation by Helle-bore."
And this could get us quite into another subject--the use of Hellebore as a medication in the 17th-18th centuries. I will only list the OED definition: "A name given by the ancients to certain plants having poisonous and medicinal properties, and esp. reputed as specifics for mental disease." Specifics? I didn't know the use of this word, but the first (and now seemingly obsolete) meaning of specific is "having a special determining quality." From John Donne: "For, God no such specifique poyson hath/ As kills we know not how." And, let's conclude this essay by a quotation from none other than John Calvin, my spiritual progenitor. "Anticyra where groweth Hellebor, a good purgation for phrenticke heads." What a great word--phrenticke, a sort of portmanteau word for "frantic" and "phrenetic" all at once. Once again, Calvin has said it better than we could...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long