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Blessings and Well Wishes

When I was struggling with a cold that left me empty of writing ideas, I asked the Twitterverse for help. One follower suggested that I stick with my cold and look into the phrase "God bless you." It proved to be a more daunting task than I anticipated, even once my head cleared.

God Bless You

God bless you has been said after someone sneezes since at least 77 AD, according to Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes.com. Pope Gregory the Great later ordered the phrase used as the bubonic plague reached toward Rome (750 590 AD). It was thought that sneezing was a sign of the plague, and the hope was that God bless you would be a prayerful way to stave off the disease. (Yeah, that worked well.)

The word god entered English in 725, but it reaches back as far as Proto-Indo-European. It either comes from ghut-, "that which is invoked" or ghu-to-, "poured," from the root gheu-, "to pour, pour a libation," according to Online Etymology Dictionary.

The idea of offering a blessing after a sneeze doesn't seem to have originated with Christianity, either. According to An Uncommon History of Common Things, ancient Romans said "Jupiter preserve you," and the ancient Greeks had similar customers, says Online Etymology Dictionary.

Other Options

Also popular in the US, as well as in many other countries, is the German gesundheit, meaning "good health." It's first recorded in English in 1914 but was probably in use for a century before that by the Pennsylvania Dutch, according to An Uncommon History.

Other responses include:

  • Russia: Bud zdorov, "Be healthy."
  • China: Yi bai sui, "May you live 100 years."
  • France: À tes souhaits, "To your wishes," or À tes amours, "To your loves."

In some cultures, it's the sneezer who says something after a sneeze. In Egypt, the sneezer says Yarhamukun Allah, "May Allah have mercy." And in Malaysia, a Muslim sneezer says Alhamdu lil-Lah ("thank God"), while the listener responds, Yarhamukun Allah.

Why a Blessing?

Although some cultures superstitiously wish the sneezer good health and others wish them other good things, overwhelmingly people often wish the sneezer a blessing from their god. Why?

There's seems to be no good answer, although Snopes.com lists quite a few theories, including:

  • "Bless you!" was a protective oath uttered to safeguard the temporarily expelled and vulnerable soul from being snatched up by Satan (who was always lurking nearby).
  • The sneeze itself was the expulsion of a demon or evil spirit, which had taken up residence in a person. Therefore, although the "Bless you!" was again a protective charm meant to protect the sneezer from evil, in this version it was meant to ward off the re-entry of an evil spirit which a tormented soul had just rid itself of.
  • The heart was believed to momentarily stop during a sneeze (it doesn't), thus the "Bless you!" was uttered either as a supplication for life to return or as a congratulation upon its successful restart.

Whatever the reason, An Uncommon History points out that most North Americans say "God bless" out of social obligation rather that religious belief, just as the sneezer obligingly responds, "Thank you."

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 11th 2012, 8:13 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Thank you for presenting all the associated history regarding sneezing phenomenon. People from all different nationality, culture or ethics sneezes all the time. It never occurs to me that question that why do we utter those words. We get relief every time we sneezes. You are a great thinker for choosing the topic. A simple matter you made it juicy.
God bless you.
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Rachel F. (Chicago, IL)
Pope Gregory the Great died in 604. It seems unlikely that anyone would have said "God bless you" as early as 77. Snopes need to do more work!
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Hazel P. (Senneville Canada)
Re comment by Rachel F. I agree, but I shall check it out with Michael Quinion of World Wide Words. He publishes his excellent paper every Saturday. He is one of the editors of the OED (or was), I'm not sure which. Do you know WWW, Rachel?
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Veronica C. (Kansas City, MO)
Rachel F -- She didn't say that he commanded it in 77 AD; she said he LATER ordered it used. Although having him order it almost 150 years after he died would be interesting! Either way, Erin, this is a great article and thanks!
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 10:55 AM
Comment by: K. Y.
Yes, but . . . but . . . why is it "God bless you" and not "God blesses you" or something that is, you know, grammatically familiar?
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
K.Y.: These verbal rituals very often get frozen in time, with frozen grammar. Think of "God bless you" as a shortened form of "May God bless you," just as "good-bye" grew out of "God be with you," short for "May God be with you."
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 5:30 PM
Comment by: K. Y.
Thanks for the great answer, Ben. I'm going to sleep well tonight.
Monday April 16th 2012, 4:17 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for your comments, and my apologies for not responding sooner. (I was at a conference last week.) Thanks, also, to those pointing out that 750 AD is incorrect. I'll ask for it to be fixed.

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