In and of itself, sneezing is an involuntary reaction from the body. When your nasal passages get blocked by something, from mucus to dust to pollen to even pepper, the body wants to push it out by any means possible. A sneeze is a powerful expulsion of air through the nose designed to accomplish just that. However, when it comes to what comes next, the history is a bit more interesting.
Chances are that you’ve been conditioned to tell someone “bless you” or some variant on that since childhood, but a lot of people simply do this without taking the time to ask why. Here’s a little history on how the expression came to be, as well as what other countries say.
Related article: Why Do People Sneeze?
The History Behind “Bless You”
Chances are that we will never know the exact reason for why people say “bless you” after sneezing. The origins of this practice date way back in the historical record, and as it stands, there is no agreed upon explanation. Instead, there are a handful of different theories, each rooted in various superstitions from the past.
Back in the 1st century, it was believed that a sneeze was actually an attempt on the part of the body to try and rid itself of evil spirits. Fittingly, people may have said “God bless you” as a way to provide good luck or support in this task. Interestingly, old wisdom also suggested that if the sneezer was to thank the blesser, this would invite the evil spirits to enter the body. That’s one trait that hasn’t carried over into the modern day, it would seem.
In other cases, people believed that the heart actually stopped when they sneezed. Saying “bless you” might have been a literal thanks to God in this case for allowing them to survive. Interestingly, blood flow to the heart is slightly altered when we sneeze, but it does revert back to normal immediately afterwards, and the heart’s electrical rhythm is not affected.
As we start to move forward in history a little bit, we see some actual historical accounts that may provide context to this phrase as well. For example, 541 to 542 AD played host to the Plague of Justinian, a pandemic that swept across the Eastern Roman Empire. During this time, Pope Gregory I declared that sneezers were to be blessed while making the sign of the cross over their mouth every time they sneezed. This was to serve as a sort of protection.
Interestingly enough, we hear similar accounts from the time of the Black Death in Western Europe. However, in these cases, it was believed that sneezing was the first sign of almost certain death, so the “bless you” takes on more of a morbid feel.
What Other Countries Say After People Sneeze
Nowadays, many people have other personal reasons that they may say “bless you” from trying to get a little extra good luck to an affirmation of faith to simply trying to stay polite. However, when we go outside of the English language, we find some interesting variations on what people say after a sneeze. In some cases, it has a similar religious connotation, in others, it’s a bit more secular.
As a start, if there’s one expression after a sneeze people know outside of “bless you” it’s the German “gesundheit.” For those who don’t know any German, this basically means “health.” Due to the presence of German immigrants, this is probably one of the few alternative things people say after a sneeze that still has its place in the American lexicon. Saying some form of “health” isn’t exclusive to German, either. The Spanish “salud” and Maltese “evviva” all have a similar meaning.
The French take, on the other hand, is very different, with it being good manners to express that the sneezer’s wishes come true. After the first sneeze, it’s common to say “à tes souhaits,” which means “to your wishes.” If they sneeze again, you say “à tes amours,” or “to your loves.”
In some cases, the expression isn’t that different than “bless you.” For example, in Portuguese, the typical response is “Deus te abafe.” The literal translation is “God smother you,” which may sound a bit unnerving, but the meaning is more like “God throw a blanket over you.”
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