Got the Sniffles, in Old English

Got the Sniffles, in Old English

coldI am fighting off a cold, which has prompted my groggy brain to wonder about how one expressed ‘to have a cold’ in Old English. Attested only five times, gepos (neut. a-stem) was apparently the common term for ‘(head-)cold’ (< Brythonic *pas- ‘cough’). The noun is found twice in conjunction with gesnot ‘catarrh, mucus’ (extant only twice): wið gesnote and (wið) geposum ‘for the treatment of catarrh and head-colds.’ Presumably then, one would have said *habban þæt gepos for ‘to have a cold.’ Such a phrase is at least suggested by the Middle English equivalent to have(n) the pose, cf. “he hath the pose” (Chaucer’s “Manciple’s Prologue,” l. 62). An alternative suggested again by Middle English is *bēon on (þǣm) gepose, lit. ‘to be in a cold’ (ME to be(n) on the pose), cf. “he speketh thurgh the nose / As he were on the quake or on the pose” (Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” l. 4152), lit. ‘he speaks through the nose as if he were hoarse or had a cold.’ (The noun pose continued to be used as late as the early nineteenth century, according to the OED, at least in dialect.) And what did one do when one had “the pose”? One would of course “snite”—to use the obsolete word (< OE snŷtan)—that is, ‘blow or clear (one’s nose).’ The verb snŷtan is the reflex of late Proto-Germanic *snūtijana ‘to clear (one’s nose),’ cf. Old Norse snýta, Old High German snûzen (> ModG schneuzen). The expected Gothic form would be *snūtjan. The verb originally seems to have meant quite literally ‘to snot.’ And so, “thag you very buch.”

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