Ever since I was a little girl I would hear people say “bless you” after someone sneezed or what sounded like gazoontite. It was really the German word gesundheit we were supposed to be saying.

It was considered rude to not acknowledge a sneeze, at least that was the case when I was growing up and the sentiment I got as an adult.

A few years ago I stopped saying bless you. I said nothing after someone sneezed, though I thanked those who blessed me. I’m sure my irritation with the phrase has something to do with the longer “god bless you” and my thoughts about god and religion.

I’m sure many of you are scratching your head about why I’m bothered by saying bless you. I’m not that bothered. I’ve been saying it to mom because, well, I think it’s the polite thing to do. It’s just that I don’t understand the reason to say it. It’s not like we say something after someone coughs or farts.

All of this got me thinking about why we say bless you or gesundheit.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says, “When English speakers hear achoo, they usually respond with either gesundheit or god bless you. Gesundheit was borrowed from German, where it literally means ‘health’; it was formed by a combination of gesund (healthy) and -heit (-hood). Wishing a person good health when they sneezed was traditionally believed to forestall the illness that a sneeze often portends. God bless you had a similar purpose, albeit with more divine weight to the well-wishing. It was once believed that the soul could exit the body during a sneeze, causing ill health, so folks said ‘God bless you’ to ward off this danger. Gesundheit, at one time, also served as a toast when drinking (much like its English counterpart, ‘to your health’), but this usage is now mostly obsolete.”

This is what the Library of Congress has to say about why god bless you is said in response to sneezing: “There are varying accounts as to the origin of this response. One belief is that it originated in Rome when the bubonic plague was raging through Europe. One of the symptoms of the plague was coughing and sneezing, and it is believed that Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) suggested saying ‘god bless you’ after a person sneezed in hopes that this prayer would protect them from an otherwise certain death. The expression may have also originated from superstition. Some people believe that the custom of asking for god’s blessing began when ancient man thought that the soul was in the form of air and resided in the body’s head. A sneeze, therefore, might accidentally expel the spirit from the body unless god blessed you and prevented this from occurring. Some ancient cultures also thought that sneezing forced evil spirits out of the body endangering others because these spirits might now enter their bodies. The blessing was bestowed to protect both the person who sneezed and others around him.”

With all of this new knowledge, I am going to start saying gesundheit or probably more often skip any response. I just find it pointless to say anything.

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