Growing up in a Christian home, I often heard my mum say “bless you” after sneezing. I realized nothing was said after coughing or burping but only sneezing. Some days ago I was in physiology experiment class and the teacher sneezed. A student quickly replied “bless you”.
This teacher was obviously Chinese and for a moment I wondered if he understood why she said “bless you”. Right then I realized I didn't know what that phrase really meant and why it was said after sneezing.
We now know that sneezing is a reflex action and is most often the sign of something relatively benign, such as a cold or allergy. A sneeze also can be provoked by being outside in the sunlight or from smelling a strong odour. Still, we persist in the custom of saying "bless you" mainly out of habit and common courtesy.
Some cultures have similar response to sneezes, believing that a sneeze could signal ill health: they might say, “Salud” (Spanish for “health”) or “Gesundheit” (German for “health”) or “Sláinte” (Irish Gaelic for “good health”) or “Jeebo” (Bengali for “stay alive”).
For the most part, the various sneeze responses originated from ancient superstitions. Some people believed that a sneeze causes the soul to escape the body through the nose. Saying "bless you" would stop the devil from claiming the person's freed soul.
Others believed the opposite: that evil spirits use the sneeze as an opportunity to enter a person's body. There was also the misconception that the heart momentarily stops during a sneeze (it doesn't), and that saying "bless you" was a way of welcoming the person back to life.
The Romans would say "Jupiter preserve you" or "Salve," which meant "good health to you," and the Greeks would wish each other "long life."
The phrase "God bless you" is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who uttered it in the sixth century during a bubonic plague epidemic which sneezing was an obvious symptom of one form of the plague.
There is a legend/tradition that Pope Gregory I commanded that, any time a sneeze was heard, the sneezer was to be blessed by saying, “God bless you,” (and making the sign of the cross over his mouth) as protection against the plague.
Finally, there is no biblical validity to such superstition. At the same time, there is no biblical reason to believe it is sinful to bless someone after a sneeze—in fact, it might just be a good time to extend a kind word and say, “God bless you.”
Interesting facts about sneezing:
- Sneezes are an automatic reflex that can’t be stopped once sneezing starts.
- Sneezes can travel at a speed of 100 miles per hour and the wet spray can radiate five feet.
- People don’t sneeze when they are asleep because the nerves involved in nerve reflex are also resting.
- Between 18 and 35% of the population sneezes when exposed to sudden bright light.
- Some people sneeze when plucking their eyebrows because the nerve endings in the face are irritated and then fire an impulse that reaches the nasal nerve.
- Donna Griffiths from Worcestershire, England sneezed for 978 days, sneezing once every minute at the beginning. This is the longest sneezing episode on record.