Most of us offer a hearty “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes, or we respond with thanks when we hear this blessing after one of our own sneezes. Gesundheit is the German word for “health” and, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, it is also used as a toast, as in “your good health.”
The spirit of this familiar blessing is used in many cultures and languages. In fact, Wikipedia lists more than 60 similar expressions from around the world. More than 2000 years ago, the Roman emperor Tiberius is credited with replying to a sneeze with “Absit omen,” which translates to “let any omen or mischance be absent” or, more colloquially, “good luck.” Later, “bless you” came into common use during the Middle Ages when a sneeze was considered an early indicator of the dreaded bubonic plague. Then the wisher might have been as concerned with his own welfare as he was with that of the person who sneezed.
The expression is also associated with a Middle Ages superstition that during a sneeze, a person’s soul briefly left his body, risking the person’s soul to capture by the opportunistic devil. Bystanders would quickly say “God bless you!” in order to protect the soul until it could return to the safety of the sneezer’s body. Alternatively, some people of that era believed that a sneeze was the body’s attempt to rid itself of an invading evil spirit.
“Bless you” it turns out has so many origins and associations that it is impossible to determine its origin. But it’s safe to say I will probably appreciate each future “Gesundheit,” whether given or received, more than I have in the past just for knowing some of the history of the saying.
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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday study of the letter “G.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I’m looking forward to investigating some of the words and phrases that, simultaneously, make English so very interesting and yet so very frustrating. I hope you will enjoy these explorations as much as I do.