Why do people say ‘god bless you’ in response to a sneeze?
First, the idea of blessing anyone is funny. What does it even mean to bless someone? If anyone can bless anyone else, doesn’t that kind of lower the prestige one would think would come with being a ‘blessed’ person? Can I bless my dog?
Even if blessings made sense, I’d still ask ‘why do we bless someone after they sneeze’ and I wouldn’t be the first. Some basic gSearch (which is a term I just made up meaning ‘google research’) brings up around 254,000 hits just by typing ‘god bless you sneeze.’
Unfortunately, zero of those 254,000 links can answer the question, because it appears that no one actually knows why people are so inclined to go around blessing anyone with an allergy.
Talk about a ‘way it’s been‘ mentality. A lot of people were simply brought up to do what their parents did, say what their parents said and believe what their parents believed. It’s a real gem to find another person capable of thinking on their own and eager to come up with their own conclusions about things like ‘blessing someone’ because they sneezed. It’s not like most people even take the blessing seriously. Pay close attention next time you sneeze. How many times to you get a crisp, clear “god bless you” versus the more common, “gableshyu.”
Hope isn’t totally lost, however, as many cultures do not integrate religion into daily health. This list is interesting as it shows the numerous things people around the world do in response to the common sneeze. Below are a few of my favorites.
- In Albanian, one says Shëndet paç, meaning literally “May you have health”.
- In Bulgarian, one says Наздраве (Nazdrave), which means “[to your] health” or “cheers”. The person who has sneezed can then say Благодаря (Blagodarya), which means “Thank you”.
- In Cantonese, one says “大吉利事“, which literally means “a great fortunate occurrence”.
- In Chinese, one may say 一百岁 (yì bǎi suì) (Mandarin) which means (may you) live a hundred years.
- In Dutch, one usually says Gezondheid (literally translated as “health”) or Proost (which means “cheers”). If the same person sneezes thrice, an informal comment would be (Drie keer) morgen mooi weer (which means “(Three times) the weather [will be] nice tomorrow”). This response can be made by both sneezer and non-sneezer.
- In German, Gesundheit ([to your] “Health”) is said after a sneeze. This is sometimes used in Canada and the United States. The expression arrived in North America with German immigrants, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and doubtless passed into local English usage in areas with substantial German-speaking populations. The expression is first widely attested in American English as of 1910, about the time when large numbers of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the United States.
- In Italian, one says Salute! meaning “[to your] health”.
Some responses to sneezing that are outdated and need to be shelved include:
- In English, the usual response is Bless you. (Pronounced ‘gableshyu.’)
- In Arabic, a typical response (generally considered religious in origins) to a sneeze is to say Alhamdo lel lah/Alhamdulillah i.e. “All praise is for Allah (God)”, after which a responder would say, يرحمكم الله (yarhamkom Allah) (God have mercy on you) and the answer is يهديكم الله و يصلح بالكم(Yahdeekom Allah wa yousleh balakom) (God guide you and make you right).
- In Czech, one says Pozdrav Pánbůh, meaning in colloquial Czech “Bless God” or “Greet God”.
- In Kurdish, the response is kher be inshalla, which means it will be a good thing God willing.
- In Mongolian, one says Бурхан өршөө (Burkhan örshöö), which means “May god forgive you.”
I mean, after all, there is no good reason to speak up. We don’t reply when someone coughs or farts or makes other bodily noises. What makes a sneeze so special?
The only culture that seems to have it right is American Sign Language, it would be appropriate to do the Excuse-Me sign after sneezing.
Next time you sneeze, try covering your mouth, excusing yourself and washing your hands. Witness someone else sneeze? Don’t do or say anything.