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Know It All: Why Do We Say “God Bless You” After Someone Sneezes?

Someone’s body has an involuntary reflexive response because of an allergen and we ask an omnipotent creator for help. What? Why?

 

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

Why Do We Say “God Bless You” After Someone Sneezes?

In terms of phrases most often said without thought given to their true meanings, the post-sneeze “God bless you” definitely ranks near the top of the list. I mean, seriously, consider it for a moment: someone’s body has an involuntary reflexive response because of something like an allergy and we all instinctively ask an omnipotent creator to infuse this person with holiness.

what?

The truth is that saying “God bless you” just doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. But why do we say it? As with most ridiculous linguistic traditions, the supposed origins are many.

Presumably before the age of science and reason, many people believed that a sneeze represented an opportunity for a person’s soul to escape from their body and a quick “God bless you” was meant to protect the potentially exposed soul from being stolen by the always-looming Satan. Yeesh.

In a related idea, sneezes were also once regarded as the means by which the body expelled a demon and thus, the “God bless you” was a preventative measure to keep the invisible evil from re-entering the body.

A common, still-cited rationale for the prominence of the “God bless you” has to do with the persistent myth that a person’s heart stops during a sneeze and so, in order for the sneezer to continue living, all onlookers must rush to ask God for help. First of all: your heart doesn’t stop during a sneeze. Secondly: no.

From what I can gather, the most acceptable explanation grew out of panic during the height of the Bubonic Plague. As the Black Death swept around the globe, a sneeze was believed to represent imminent death and the “God bless you” was a fond farewell to the infected person nearby.

In conclusion: stop saying “God bless you” unless you’re meaning to imply the presence of demons or an unstoppable 14th century global pandemic.

Now you know.

About

Justin Brown is a writer and artist living in Virginia. He channels most of his mind's molten river of creativity into his blog Esteban Was Eaten!. For even more information about him, check out his website.

 

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