Maybe it's the start of the hayfever season or the beginning of a cold or perhaps it's just bright sunshine – whatever the reason there's an awful lot of sneezing going on. Are you a hearty sneezer of the 'A-TISH-OO' kind (or A-TISH-THREE as my husband has it), do you restrain yourself to 'h'n' or are you somewhere between the two with 'A-khmn'? If you're French and a proper sneezer – that is, one who allows free rein to the irresistibly explosive outburst – you will probably say 'Atchoum' while across the borders the afflicted person will say 'Hatschie' in Germany, '¡Achús!' in Spain or 'Etciù!' in Italy, all of which are recognisably onomatopoeic and perfectly comprehensible. However, in Malayalam or Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, a sneeze is written as 'Thummal' – it must be the way they pronounce it, or sneeze it!
What do you say when someone sneezes? If you're a German speaker you will say 'Gesundheit'. The Welsh will respond with 'Bendigedig' while Italians say 'Felicita' and the French 'Que Dieu vous bénisse' or 'A vos souhaits'. Do you believe you're closest to death when you sneeze or have allowed the devil into your body?
Probably you're not at all superstitious but still hear yourself instinctively respond with 'Bless you' followed by 'Once a wish, twice a kiss, thrice a letter'. Perhaps we are comforted by these reassuring little commonplaces.
If your nose simply itches and the itchiness does not progress to a sneeze someone nearby might say, 'Itchy snitch, be kissed, be cursed or shake hands with a fool' and immediately offer a handshake. None of these reactions are life-saving but somehow they link us to our past when a sneeze might have presaged disease and death; perhaps we have an atavistic desire to do all we can to avoid disaster.