One of the more curious traditions that are found in the US and other English-speaking countries is to say “Bless you” or “God bless you” after a person sneezes. This is an interesting bit of trivia about the tradition that has been carried on for a long time.
Variations of the idiom have been around far longer, too. The ancient Romans said “salve” rather than “bless you”. Salve means “good health to you”. The Greeks wished people a long life after they sneezed. For the Romans and Greeks, the reasoning wasn’t greatly different than saying “Bless you”, though the superstition that it is based on was more concrete and observable.
The idea was that there was the potential for something evil occurring when a person sneezed. This might sound silly since we now know that a sneeze is caused by irritation of the nasal passages, but at least in the case of “bless you”, it actually made sense.
“God bless you” is said to have begun with Pope Gregory, who was the Pope during one of the bubonic plague pandemics in Europe. One of the tell-tale signs of the plague was sneezing. Naturally, not everyone who sneezed had the plague. For that matter, not everyone who got the plague died from it, though most did.
The Pope’s blessing was thus a request for divine intervention, to ask for good health for the person who sneezed so that they wouldn’t succumb to the horrors of the plague.
To this day, we still say “bless you”, though most people have long since forgotten why the prayer was and is offered.
The German-speaking immigrants to the US gave us a similar term that is also commonly uttered when an individual sneezes; gesundheit. Geshundheit simply means “health” and the idea behind it is that people often sneeze at the onset of a cold, the flu, or another illness. Using the German term, you are merely wishing the person good health so they don’t become ill.
Because the purpose between both gesundheit and bless you is so similar, the two terms are used interchangeably.
I suspect that you might think about this little trivia fact the next time you hear someone say ‘bless you’ or ‘gesundheit’, and you might even think about it before you use either term. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wishing people good health, nor with praying to God on the behalf of someone who sneezes or even if they don’t.