Why do we bless someone who sneezes, and why do many Americans and people in other English speaking countries do so with the German word for health, ‘Gesundheit’? Find out with our excursion into superstitions around the world and the history and etymology of ‘Gesundheit’ in the USA and the English language.
Why do we respond to sneezes with ‘Gesundheit’ or ‘bless you’?
A sneeze is a reflex provoked by a cold, an allergy or dust, a strong smell or sometimes a ray of sunlight tickling your nose. To respond to a sneeze is just as reflexive, wishing a blessing or good health upon the sneezer. Where does the near compulsory answer come from?
Sneeze responses in nearly all cultures have their origins in ancient superstitions and times when people didn’t know or understand the human body so well. There existed the misconceived notion that a sneeze stopped the heart momentarily–which is not true, in case you didn’t know. A saying like “bless you” welcomed the sneezer back to life afterwards.
Another superstition was the belief that the soul left the body through the nose in a sneeze. The immediate blessing was supposed to stop the devil from snatching up the free soul. The exact opposite belief also existed, that a sneezer needed a blessing so prevent evil spirits from entering their body through the nose.
Whatever the belief or superstition may be, the proper response to a sneeze is always a form of well-wishing, to which the sneezer in turn responds with a form of appreciation or a blessing in return.
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The origins of ‘Gesundheit’
‘Gesundheit’ is a German word meaning “health”. It is formed by combining the adjective for healthy, ‘gesund’, with the suffix ‘heit’, meaning hood, to form a noun. As we’ve outlined above, the Germans use “Gesundheit” to wish the sneezer good health and stave off any illness.
“Gesundheit” used to be a German toast as well, though the usage is nearly obsolete. But the Germans still drink to their health: “Prost” is short for the Latin ‘prosit’: “may it help” or “may it be well”.
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The usage of ‘Gesundheit’ in the US and English
People in the United States of America often know the interjection and use it instead of “bless you” when someone sneezes. The US is a nation of immigrants, and the origins of usage in English trace back to German immigration in the 19th and 20th century. Germans often moved to the Midwest, where the use of ‘Gesundheit’ is still widespread today.
During these waves of immigration, the expression also carried the meaning of expressing gratitude and was also used as a toast. Newspapers thanked their readers with “Gesundheit!” and print advertising for beer companies also featured the phrase. Some ads went so far as to explain the meaning of health, saying the company’s brew was synonymous with it.
With World War II on the horizon and the anti-German sentiments rising, the popularity of ‘Gesundheit’ waned in the 1940s. By the 1960s, the word had not disappeared, but evolved: “Americanised” with lower case spelling, ‘gesundheit’ was then used as an interjection only with the sole meaning of wishing good health, especially on someone who has just sneezed.
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Where do people say ‘Gesundheit’?
You will of course hear ‘Gesundheit’ as a response to sneezing in Germany. In the past, a common saying was also “Gott helfe!” or “Helf Gott!”, invoking the help of God, which is not unlike the English “God bless you” and used by the Austrians as well. Parts of the USA, especially the Midwest, also still use ‘Gesundheit’. Some people there consider the expression high class or cultivated.
Some languages with Germanic roots use their own version: in Dutch, the saying is ‘Gezondheid’, in Luxemburg it’s ‘Gesondheet’ and Afrikaans uses ‘Gesondheid’. The Yiddish sneezing response is ‘tzu gezunt’, although ‘Gesundheit’ is used as well.
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Many other languages such as Albanian, Armenian, Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Khmer, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, French, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Kazakh, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Turkish, Ukranian and Vietnamese respond to a sneeze with some mention of health or well wishes.
Similar to English, invoking God is also common, which can be found in Arabic, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Kurdish, Mongolian or Welsh.
In some Asian cultures, the practice of a sneeze response is lesser known. In Korea, the sneezer themself might say a phrase to chase the cold away. In Chinese, the most common response is ‘bǎisuì’, wishing that the sneezer may live to a hundred years of age. In both China and Japan the superstition exists that sneezes are caused by someone talking about you. In Japanese culture, you do not comment on a single sneeze, but after multiple sneezes, people will ask you if you are all right.
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