Revisited: I beg (urp) your pardon (achoo!)

I wrote not too long ago about my annoyance with the social convention that demands a verbal response from bystanders when someone sneezes. Just as we properly fail to comment when our friends and coworkers make other kinds of unprompted nasal or oral outbursts — like snorting or saying “hi” — so too should we mind our own business for the sneeze.

The most common response always seemed a little presumptuous to me anyway. “God bless” sounds too much like an order to the deity. He’s supposed to stop whatever grand enterprise He might be involved in so He can heed your command to bless Bob from accounting simply because he (Bob) had an irritation of the nasal passage that caused a sudden, forceful expulsion of air and God knows what else? Even the most focused of us has to concentrate when creating worlds or smiting errant Methodists; we don’t need to be distracted by requests for trivial blessings, especially when we all know that Bob makes it louder than he has to just because he craves attention.

Saying “God bless” is second nature to many of us, yet would other cultures similarly demand their gods do such casual bidding? Can you imagine hearing “Shiva, hand me that stapler,” or “Yahweh, tell that guy to knock off the humming”? I don’t think so.

If we’re all going to agree that spontaneous eruptions from the mouth or nose need some kind of acknowledgment, let’s at least be consistent and come up with some standards that make a little bit of sense. I think I’m as competent as anyone to start the discussion.

For sneezing, I proposed we switch over completely to the more secular “Gesundheit.” I believe that translates from the German to “good health,” which is probably too late to hope for if the cold germs are already in the trachea but seems like a nice sentiment anyway.

For coughing, I think we should say “Schadenfreude.” Again, turning to the Germanic tradition feels appropriate and, since the translation has to do with taking delight in the failure of others more successful than you, a certain bitterness is properly communicated.

For hiccupping, I would suggest something along the lines of “Sorry you’ve had a convulsive gasp caused by the involuntary contraction of the diaphragm. Let’s agree that it won’t happen again.”

For burping, let’s go with “Jacksonian democracy.” Admittedly it makes no sense, but it should at least prompt a change of subject to nineteenth-century American history. I think we also need to acknowledge the pause in conversation you’ll sometimes detect when someone just barely manages to suppress a burp. Your boss says “I really think that in order to cut costs further we’re going to have to (pause, slight puffing of jowls and slight lowering of jaw) lay off our entire workforce and outsource our production to Chimp Haven, the retirement home for lab monkeys” and you’re thinking “Wow, he almost burped; I should probably say something.” That something should be “Hail, Satan.”

For yawning, no response should be required unless the yawn is accompanied by an audible sound. If it is, let me propose either “need a nap?” or the equally appropriate “please close your mouth as soon as possible.”

For throat clearing, keep in mind that this is usually done as a preface to an interruption, so a good reply might be “what the hell do you want?” If instead, a true backup of phlegm was actually involved and the “ahem” was sincere, say nothing but instead evacuate the area immediately.

For chewing gum in such an insistent manner as to cause a cracking sound, we should say (into the nearest 911-enabled telephone) “The nature of my emergency is that my friend has apparently swallowed Bubble Wrap.”

For sniffing or sniffling, like when you’re try to get air through a slightly congested sinus, I’m tempted to suggest the caustic “Oh, boo-hoo, what a baby” but that seems a little harsh, even to me. I think I’ll recommend tactful silence unless – and this is a very important exception – the sniff is accompanied by a high-pitched tweet, which should prompt the response “There seems to be a bird in your nose; let’s join together to kill it.”

Nose-blowing, even the most subtle variety, is an abomination that I can’t believe is sanctioned in polite company. Considering that it’s far less spontaneous than other expulsions – the blower even premeditates (if we’re lucky) his or her move by producing a hanky – it should not be tolerated, much less tacitly endorsed with a friendly comment. Nose-blowing should only be done under the care of a healthcare professional on an in-patient basis at the nearest major medical center, or at least not in the same room as me.

Horking, mostly done by cats trying to expel a hairball though occasionally heard from elderly gentlemen, should be met with “bad kitty” (or “bad elderly gentleman”) followed by a stern “No!”

I think I’ve provided an adequate framework for the transition from our current methods of recognizing these outbursts to something much more fair and equitable. I realize that there may be some categories I haven’t covered, in particular those hybrid explosions that combine two or more of the above-defined events: the sneef (sneeze + cough), the curp (cough + burp), the york (yawn + hork) and the never-documented but often-theorized snickup (sniffle + hiccup). But I can’t both create and manage this new system, and will have to rely on the good sense of average citizens to take it to the next level if that’s what’s needed.

I don’t want to appoint a Language Czar to oversee my plans though, if necessary, I understand George W. Bush is available.


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One Response to “Revisited: I beg (urp) your pardon (achoo!)”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    Wow, this is weird. I took 3 years of German in college, and I’m pretty sure that “Gesundheit” means, “Where is das Kleenex?” or possibly, “Get a dog”.

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