The Friday Fillip: Ado About Achoo

Ah— ah— ah— achoo!

That’s how we sneeze. (Or fnese, as old English once had it, back when we had “fn” as an initial consonant cluster.)

If we were Polish, however, we’d sneeze “a-psik!” and if Japanese then “hakushon!” And, curious fact, if we were deaf we’d sneeze with no sound at all, revealing that the loud part of this reflex is not reflexive at all but learned.

Reflexes. Wikipedia lists nearly forty of them. They’re helpful short circuits in our neural system, sending signals to the spinal cord, whence action signals are relayed back in what’s known as the reflex arc, bypassing the time-consuming trek up to the brain and back down again. So we don’t decide to sneeze: it just happens to us. Though some of us sometimes can stop the reflex if we sense it approaching; my dad the doctor claimed that you could do this by pushing on the tip of your nose, where there’s a branch of the trigeminal nerve, one that’s implicated in the sneezing reflex.

I raise this last point because we all may need to learn how to frustrate a sneeze — at least when it’s about to happen in public. My thinking goes like this: once, not that long ago, spitting in public was acceptable and, indeed, common. But somewhere in the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century, spitting in public began to be regarded as socially unacceptable, and after the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918 it generally died out as a social practice. Indeed, ever since bourgeois Dutch wives made men take their mucky boots off at the door, we’ve been on a slow roll towards ever more social . . . hygiene, I suppose — cleanliness, certainly — as propriety increasingly forbids the public production of bodily functions and fluids. Public urination is long gone; spitting a thing of the past; and think of the fact that in one or two generations the use of daily showers and anti-perspirants have all but eliminated the (disapproved of) odour of the other from public congress.

Already there are campaigns encouraging us to sneeze into the crook of our elbows, if sneeze we must in public. And, indeed, a sneeze is a powerful distributor of droplets, each of which might contain germs. So our concern with the presentation of self in everyday life now has a strong germ phobia attached to it, something that’s actually led to serious suggestions we stop shaking each others’ hands and adopt the fist bump form of greeting instead. The elbow smothering of a sneeze might soon be insufficient for the new fearful, which is why I suggest you practice dampening that reflex.

This will be tricky and might serve to distinguish the adept from the ordinary person, tricky because it would be wrong to try to stop a sneeze that’s already in full swing: blocking the nose or mouth might harm your sinuses or eardrums. No, you’ll need to learn to control the action of your parasympathetic nervous system. Pressing the tip of your nose may work for you, as my dad recommended. Other techniques include pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth, pressing the bit of the upper jaw just below your nose, or squeezing the little indentation in your forehead just above your nose. Best of all, of course, would be the ability to stop a sneeze simply by willing it to stop, demonstrating a form of tantric control over the body that will be bound to identify the superior citizen.


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