Tabs on Writing

The Business of Business Writing by John Tabellione, Principal at

Nothing to Sneeze At

Date: 16 February 2019
Category: History, Religion

While few of us can recall any particular Papal decrees throughout history, here’s a famous one many of us use every day: on this date (February 16th) in the year 600 A.D., Pope Gregory the Great decreed that saying “God bless You” is the correct response to someone’s sneeze. During his lifetime, Europe had been experiencing a decrease in population since plagues and famines were devastatingly commonplace.

The thought and hope being, that since common symptoms of a plague were coughing and sneezing, by invoking “God bless you” after people sneezed, this little prayer would protect them from death.

Ever wonder where the expression “Nothing to sneeze at” originated? Apparently, back in “more recent times” (17th and 18th centuries) people of all classes used snuff, a powdered preparation of tobacco taken by inhaling or by dipping—that is, rubbing on the teeth and gums. 

The wealthy carried a variety of fancy snuff-boxes created by craftsmen  decorated in rich detail and made from precious or expensive materials such as gold, silver, and ivory, and which were often adorned with artwork, gems and precious stones.

Sniffing a pinch of snuff could often result in a significant amount of sneezing–even on demand–and issuing a sneeze became a custom of people who disagreed with the subject at hand, and, furthermore, could be interpreted as a sign of disrespect to the speaker.

Conversely, then, if one becomes impressed by what is being spoken, or agrees that it is noteworthy, then that topic becomes “nothing to sneeze at.”

Anyway, that’s snuff of that…

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