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Why Do We Say Bless You When Someone Sneezes?

Whenever someone sneezes, our prompt response is to say, ‘bless you’. Some may call it good manners, and others may call it a reflex reaction. Whatever the reason is, we can’t help ourselves, regardless of the type of sneeze. Many people consider this response to be an unshakeable, prompt reaction.

We can never outline the exact point from where the “god bless you” response to sneezing began, but there are some theories as to how this may have originated. Here’s a look at some possible explanations of how this custom began.

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Almost Every Country Has Their Own Version

Girl sneezing

While it might seem like a purely English response, that’s not the case. There are versions in many languages, each stemming from its own tradition.

In Germany, people say “gesundheit” in response to sneezes instead of “god bless you”. Gesundheit means health, so the idea is that as a sneeze usually indicates that an illness is on the way, by saying this, we’re wishing the sneezer good health.  The word made its way into the English vocabulary in the early 20th century and was introduced to the Americans by German immigrants. Today, many English speakers also use the word gesundheit.

Hindu-centric nations say “Jeete Raho” meaning “Live well”.

However, people in Arabic countries wish the sneezer by saying “Alhamdulillah” – meaning “Praise be to almighty!” The traditional response to a child’s sneeze in China is “bai sui”, which mean “may you live 100 years”.

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In Russia, when a child sneezes, people respond to them by saying “rosti bolshoi” (grow big) or “bud zdorov” (be healthy).

How Did This Custom Originate?

The origins of the phrase are believed to date back to Rome during the Black Death, the era when the bubonic plague ravaged Europe.

One of the primary symptoms of this disease was sneezing. It was Pope Gregory I of that time who believed that responding to a sneeze with “god bless you” would serve as a prayer to protect the person from the plague.

European Christians suffered a lot when the first plague hit their continent. In 590, it weakened and shattered the Roman Empire. The Great and well-known Pope Gregory believed that sneezing was nothing but an early sign of a devastating plague. Thus, he asked, rather commanded the Christians to bless the person who sneezes,

W David Myers, history professor at Fordham University.

However, there could be another possible origin. In ancient times, it was believed that if a person sneezed, there was the danger of their spirit accidentally being expelled from the body. By saying bless you, God would prevent this from happening and protect the spirit. On the flip side, another theory goes that some would believe that evil spirits could enter a person when they sneezed. So, saying bless you kept those spirits at bay.

And lastly, one of the most common theories on the origin of the superstition comes from the belief that the heart stops beating when the person sneezes and saying “god bless you” brings them back from the dead. This does sound dramatic, but sneezing can be an interesting phenomenon. In fact, if you try to stifle a sneeze, it can result in an injured diaphragm, bruised eyes, ruptured ear drums, or even burst blood vessels in your brain!

Modern Views on Saying Bless You

Boy sneezing

This phrase was a way to understand what was happening, at a time when people couldn’t explain what a sneeze was. However, today, there are some who find the phrase annoying because it contains the word ‘god’. As a result, many atheists prefer to use the secular term ‘gesundheit’ rather than the religious ‘god bless you’.

For others, the religious implications aren’t important. Saying bless you can be the quickest and easiest way to let a person know you care about them and another way to connect with them. 

“No matter how blessed your life, what hurt would some extra blessing do to you?”

Monica Eaton-Cardone.

Sharon Schweitzer, writer on etiquette, states that even today people believe that responding with “god bless you” is a symbol of kindness, social graces, and social standing, irrespective of your knowledge of its origins or history. She says, “We were taught to respond to sneezing by saying it, so it has become a reflex to do so, even in the 21st century.”

Why We Feel the Need to Say Bless You

Dr. Farley of Temple University reveals his analysis of the various motives why we feel compelled to use the phrase “god bless you” when someone sneezes. Here they are:

  • Conditioned Reflex: When someone receives a blessing ‘god bless you’ after a sneeze, they greet back with a ‘thank you.’ This thankful greeting acts as a reinforcement and reward. It’s alluring. We model ourselves on their behavior, especially when they bless us. This human psyche onsets at a young age after seeing adults do the same with each other.
  • Conformity: Several people conform to the convention. Responding with “god bless you” to someone who sneezed is an integral part of the gallantry that is the basis of plenty of our social norms.
  • MicroAffections: “Reacting to sneezing with “god bless you” may incite a significantly brief yet slipping away delighted connection to the individual sneezing,” a circumstance that is referred to as “micro-affections” by Dr. Farley. He considers it the antidote to “micro-aggression.”

Wrapping Up

While the origins of saying bless you are lost to history, what’s clear is that today, this has become a custom that most people engage in without much thought. Much like saying touch wood, we know that it doesn’t have much meaning, but we do it anyway.

While most of us don’t believe in demons, evil spirits, or momentary death, today, saying ‘god bless you’ to someone who sneezes is considered nothing but etiquette and a kind gesture. And even if the superstitions are true, what harm is there in blessing someone, after all?

Affiliate Disclosures

Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.