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Why We Say 'Bless You' When a Person Sneezes

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.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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        • Of course, which is why I asked. “Bless You” was started by a Pope and not everyone in the world is Catholic. The Romans didn’t use that term, nor did the Greeks, so I’m simply curious how many other countries actually say “Bless You” in their own languages when someone sneezes and why they do.

          • My bad. The point is, Italy is a non-English country and being once before the Roman Empire, they mostly conquered non-English speaking countries cause, Europe as whole isn’t that English. I like your approach in this article just, I would like you to explore more of an aspect of European cultures and history. According to my language group, Slavic people use this expression all the time:) In Croatia, we say Na zdravlje or Bless you. And, let me tell, last year I sneezed in front of my female Italian friend and she didn’t say a word 🙂 Cheers!

  1. One day, many years ago, I was driving to work and don’t ask me why but the radio announcer mentioned a trivia fact about sneezing. He said that a long time ago people started saying “Bless you” because they believed that when you sneezed you were getting rid of an evil spirit who was trying to take up residence in your body. I don’t believe that part about the evil spirit but I like the idea of saying “God bless you” or “Bless you” to people. I don’t even wait for the person to sneeze. I don’t even care if they’re atheists! LOL.

    • The notion that a sneeze was getting rid of evil spirits is a fanciful story, but it hasn’t been substantiated. Still, the idea of the Pope using it because of the plague does make a lot of sense, even though the plague wasn’t caused by evil spirits. I also give blessing quite often, though, and that reminds me of another common saying in the south…”Bless your heart”. LOL

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