Exam week is coming up, which means we’re all very busy and focussed on getting those straight A’s in. Very stressful of course. So here’s a little question you can daydream about when you feel like procrastinating: why is it that we say ‘bless you’ after someone sneezes? Of course we say this because it’s just polite to do so. But no one alive actually knows for sure why we started saying ‘bless you’, or anything at all for that matter. We don’t have automatic replies for every cough we hear for example. So what’s behind this phenomenon?
In The Netherlands, we say ‘gezondheid’ when somebody sneezes, which literally means ‘health’. We say this to wish for someone to be healthy. Which makes sense, because people most often sneeze when they’ve got a cold or an allergic reaction to something, both signs of feeling under the weather. So, saying ‘gezondheid’ makes sense.
But why is it that in English people don’t wish for others to be healthy, but for them to be blessed instead? It’s particularly strange when you consider that blessing is something that is done in religious spheres. And that while the UK, birthplace of the English language, is not known as a very religious country these days.
Could the expression be a left-over from the old English language? Christianity properly came to England around 600 A.D., almost a thousand years before the Modern English language was formed. Perhaps people did not have an expression to say after sneezing yet and decided to stick with ‘bless you’. This would explain why it is still in the English language, years after Christianity stopped playing a big role in the UK.
Or maybe saying ‘bless you’ was a part of a superstition. It could be that people believed sneezing was something that happened when the devil or another evil spirit was inside the body. People could then wish for that person to be blessed so that they would get rid of this evil spirit.
Or perhaps sneezing had a completely opposite meaning. Perhaps sneezing was a sign of being blessed. People would then say ‘bless you’ to acknowledge that this person is blessed.
The only thing that is certain is that no one alive actually knows why we started saying ‘bless you’. So maybe, the next time someone sneezes, try to come up with your own reason.
PS if you need some help getting those straight A’s in, revisit this article.