Blessings and Well Wishes

by Erin Brenner on November 2, 2011

Last week, I struggled with a cold that left me empty of ideas for The Writing Resource. When I asked the Twitterverse for ideas, 4ndyman suggested that I stick with my cold and look into the phrase “God bless you.” It proved to be a more daunting task than I anticipated, even once my head cleared.

God Bless You

God bless you has been said after someone sneezes since at least 77 AD, according to Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes.com. Pope Gregory the Great later ordered the phrase used as the bubonic plague reached toward Rome (750 AD). It was thought that sneezing was a sign of the plague, and the hope was that God bless you would be a prayerful way to stave off the disease. (Yeah, that worked well.)

The word god entered English in 725, but it reaches back as far as Proto-Indo-European. It either comes from ghut-, “that which is invoked” or ghu-to-, “poured,” from the root gheu-, “to pour, pour a libation,” according to Online Etymology Dictionary.

The idea of offering a blessing after a sneeze doesn’t seem to have originated with Christianity, either. According to An Uncommon History of Common Things, ancient Romans said “Jupiter preserve you,” and the ancient Greeks had similar customers, says Online Etymology Dictionary.

Other Options

Also popular in the US, as well as in many other countries, is the German gesundheit, meaning “good health.” It’s first recorded in English in 1914 but was probably in use for a century before that by the Pennsylvania Dutch, according to An Uncommon History.

Other responses include:

  • Russia: Bud zdorov, “Be healthy.”
  • China: Yi bai sui, “May you live 100 years.”
  • France: À tes souhaits, “To your wishes,” or À tes amours, “To your loves.”

In some cultures, it’s the sneezer who says something after a sneeze. In Egypt, the sneezer says Yarhamukun Allah, “May Allah have mercy.” And in Malaysia, a Muslim sneezer says Alhamdu lil-Lah (“thank God”), while the listener responds, Yarhamukun Allah.

Why a Blessing?

Although some cultures superstitiously wish the sneezer good health and others wish them other good things, overwhelmingly people often wish the sneezer a blessing from their god. Why?

There’s seems to be no good answer, although Snopes.com lists quite a few theories, including:

  • “Bless you!” was a protective oath uttered to safeguard the temporarily expelled and vulnerable soul from being snatched up by Satan (who was always lurking nearby).
  • The sneeze itself was the expulsion of a demon or evil spirit, which had taken up residence in a person. Therefore, although the “Bless you!” was again a protective charm meant to protect the sneezer from evil, in this version it was meant to ward off the re-entry of an evil spirit which a tormented soul had just rid itself of.
  • The heart was believed to momentarily stop during a sneeze (it doesn’t), thus the “Bless you!” was uttered either as a supplication for life to return or as a congratulation upon its successful restart.

Whatever the reason, An Uncommon History points out that most North Americans say “God bless” out of social obligation rather that religious belief, just as the sneezer obligingly responds, “Thank you.”

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