Bless you… why?


I sneezed.

That’s it. Nothing glamourous or amazing. Just a basic, average, ordinary sneeze.

And as happens when you are kind of absent-mindedly moving along through a few moments with a chance to think about things, I began wondering about the origins of blessings and wishes when we sneeze. You know the deal…

*** Big sneeze *** from you

“Bless you” from someone nearby

I think most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the idea of the wishes being an attempt to save our very souls. Big sneeze… soul escapes from body… quick “God bless you” offerings grab the soul by the ankles and toss it back into the body.

Pretty simple. And while most don’t seem to recall it right away, when you mention saving one’s soul from a sneeze and returning it with a “bless you” offering you usually get a nod or two that indicates at least a smidgeon of “yeah, I’ve heard that” recognition.

There is also a twist to the religious, soul saving idea. In some reports, this one moves along with the sneeze tossing out not the soul, but the demons that have gotten inside to attack us. The resulting salute becomes effectively an observation and not a wish, where the observer is toasting your improved condition by the expelling of the beasts.

There are an incredibly diverse set of examples dating back thousands of years thst cover the reasoning behind the offerings. And many include these that retrieve the soul to those that chase away the demons to society at large. Then there are those more specific to the towns and the villagers and the surroundings and such.

With disease and death so much a part of history, in some histories the offering was made common as a recognition of illness. Since in so many ways death was a likely next step along the path of illness, “bless you” was a way to wish you the best in case you were overcome by your infirmities and passed on.

This concept in turn brings us to another very common phrasing, and the German language. (Say it with me… gesundheit.) The response to a sneeze in this manner actually translates as health and wellness. (The word breaks down into “health” and “hood” in the German form. Which is great. The unfortunate part? The history for this phrase in broad use goes back only one to two hundred years. “Bless you” has the real longevity here.)

It’s not just German that holds such meaning though. Several languages have similar call (sneeze) and response (“bless you”) instances… with a few matching up with health as the central wording. Norwegian… prosit. Finnish… terveydeksi. Even Yiddish… tsu gezunt.

Ah… but health and wellness and good wishes from gesundheit don’t bring along nearly the same religious weight as “God bless you” holds, even when extended informally. And yet it is with that informal idea that we may complete the wondering. Because…

The funny thing is, of all the reasons possible, the most obvious is usually the least discussed. We are, at our most basic, polite by nature. Whether religiously recapturing the soul or chasing away the devil, wishing afterlife salvation following an illness with certain demise, or warmly extending hope for a speedy return to full vigor, the offerings have become an expected response.

Yup. Manners.

We may not be saying bless you or gesundheit for any reason other than it being a reflex. A polite reflex. But pretty much a rubber hammer to the patellar nonetheless.

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