Q From Sybil Cubilette: During a visit abroad I was having a conversation with a friend. As he doesn’t speak English as a first language, he would often ask the meaning of slang I used quite frequently, such as not to be sneezed at. Could you could provide some information as to where this comes from?
A Since the expression dates from the early nineteenth century, we are in the realm of supposition here, since nothing on record gives any convincing evidence about where it comes from.
We do know that it’s almost exactly contemporary with the form without the negative. To sneeze at something was to despise, disregard or underrate it, to treat it with derision or consider it worth little or nothing. We may guess that a sneeze was considered to be a gesture of contempt or disrespect. The first known example is in a popular novel of 1806, A Winter in London, by Thomas Skinner Surr:
“A word in your ear,” said his lordship: “Do you know, I have quite changed my mind about that business since I met the marquis. He tells me that it’s a sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at. ‘It would be well enough,’ says he, ‘for a fifteenth or sixteenth son of lord Roseville’; but, my dear fellow, it would be murder of the foulest dye for one of your spirit, with such an exchequer as your dad possesses, for you, an only son, to turn engrossing-clerk, and copy a parcel of humdrum dispatches.”
The first example of our modern negative form — for something that shouldn’t be rejected without careful consideration, or something that’s worth having or taking into account — is actually slightly older than Surr’s novel. It appeared in a popular play, Fortune’s Frolic, by John Till Allingham, which was first produced at Covent Garden in 1799: “Why, as to his consent I don’t value it a button; but then £5000 is a sum not to be sneezed at.”
Indeed it wasn’t: £5000 then would be very roughly £150,000 now (about US$225,000, as of the time of writing).