I have noticed that many of the early posts on this blog get relatively little traffic, so I have decided to start republishing some of them.
Here’s another example of my issues with Cassidy’s theories. According to Cassidy, the English word sneeze derives from Irish:
Sní as (pron. snee’as, flowing, dripping, leaking, coursing out of) is not to be sneezed at. It is the Irish origin of the English sneeze.
There are several points to be noted here. First of all, the phrase sní as doesn’t exist in Irish as a way of referring to sneezing. Nor could it exist, as far as I can see. The word sní refers to slow movement of liquids, such as a running, a dripping or a flowing, or to the slow movement of snails or slugs. Here is the entry from Mícheál Ó Siochfhradha’s Irish-English, English-Irish Dictionary published in 1973 by the Talbot Press in Dublin:
Sní, f. flowing slowly (as water); crawling (as snail)
As sneezing is one of the fastest and most dynamic actions the human body is capable of, it hardly seems likely that sní would be used to describe it! It would be far more likely to be used (if at all) as a way of describing a nose running because of a cold.
Then again, there is an Irish word for sneeze. It’s in all the dictionaries. Sraoth is the word. So if you want to say “I sneezed”, you would say lig me sraoth. If you want to say ‘I was sneezing’, you say bhí mé ag sraothartach (or in my Ulster dialect, bhí mé ag srofartaigh).
And last but by no means least, we have to look at borrowings between languages. Generally speaking, languages borrow words that they don’t have a word for themselves. Thus banshee, or kosher, or imam have been borrowed into English because English doesn’t have words for those concepts. But people have always sneezed, so why wouldn’t English have had a word for sneezing before the Irish gave them an expression?
Of course, the English did have an expression for sneezing. It’s the word sneezing. English is a Germanic language, which is why Irish fear is ‘man’ in English and ‘Mann’ in German, or Irish lámh is ‘hand’ in English and ‘Hand’ in German, because the core vocabulary of the Germanic languages is related. If we look at words for sneeze in the Germanic languages, sneeze is ‘niesen’ (pronounced ‘neezen’) in German and ‘niezen’ (neesa) in Dutch. Apparently all of these words originally had an f in front of them which in English was somehow replaced with an s, probably on the analogy of words like sniff, snort, snivel. As it happens, the version with f- is not found in any Old English text but this doesn’t mean it never existed.
By the time of Chaucer, the word already existed in English as snesen. The words sneeze, niesen and niezen are obviously the same word (and phonetically far closer than many of Cassidy’s fake associations like block and bealach or sách úr and sucker) and none of them has any direct connection with Irish.