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Do people sneeze in their sleep without waking up?

My old man was a snorer. His snoring was like the plot of a good action movie, with plenty of rising action. About 15 minutes after he'd fall asleep, it would sound like there was a heard of buffalo racing bulldozers and juggling chainsaws in my parents' bedroom. It would get louder and louder and then cut off when he finally woke himself up. There would be one final snort, and then a "huh?" After that, there was a small window of silence where the whole house could try and get back to sleep before the noise kicked back up.

You'd think it would follow, then, that we would regularly jar ourselves awake with sneezes, too, but that isn't the case. Actually, it seems I pulled a trick question out of the mailbag this week, because we don't sneeze in our sleep at all.

The Roots of the Sneeze

A sneeze is a reflexive response to external stimulants slipping past your nose hairs and reaching the sensitive mucous membranes that line the nasal passage (another common cause is the "photic sneeze reflex," a genetic trait that causes sneezing when a person is suddenly exposed to bright light). Nerve endings in the membranes send signals to the brain about the foreign invaders, and the brain sends signals to muscles in the face, throat and chest to go ahead clean house by expelling air from the nose and mouth.

We're actually more prone to sneezing while asleep, since the mucous membranes swell when we lie down, but because there usually isn't much airflow or movement to stir up dust or other particles while we sleep, the membranes don't come into contact with as many stimulants as they do when we're awake.

Our odds of have having to sneeze during sleep are already reduced, but our bodies have a neat little trick up their sleeves to keep us at rest. It's called REM atonia, a state caused by the shutdown of the release of certain neurotransmitters during REM sleep that results in motor neurons not being stimulated and reflectory signals not being sent to the brain. So, even if there were various stimulants being kicked up while you slept (say, by an evil cat playing with his rubber ball or biting your toes at five in the morning), and a few got into your nose, the brain wouldn't be alerted to the matter.

It is possible, if the external stimulants are sufficient (say, by an evil cat dusting your mustache with pepper), for a person to wake up to sneeze.

This question was asked by Regina from Texas. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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