Like a lot of people, I was brought up to say “God bless you” when somebody sneezes. I never really thought about how the tradition started until my allergies flared up and people were imploring God to bless me every seven seconds. Here’s the scoop on why people say what they do when somebody spurts “ahh-cho.”
The Straight Dope, a great site for researching these sorts of questions, explains that the custom “was begun literally as a blessing” by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD). Gregory the Great became Pope just as the plague was sweeping the land.
Understandably, people were quite scared about the plague and hoped a higher power could help to protect them. Pope Gregory apparently agreed with the theory and “called for litanies, processions, and unceasing prayer for God’s help and intercession.” Whenever anybody sneezed (often construed as a sign of illness), people quickly blessed them, in hopes of helping them to fight off the plague.
Another excellent site, Snopes.com, is less sure of the custom’s origin. The urban legend experts list a number of possibilities for why people originally started to say “God bless you.” One example — perhaps people thought a person’s soul might escape during a sneeze. To say “God bless you” would ward off the devil from capturing the soul while it’s there for the taking.
There are a few acceptable alternatives to the famous phrase. The German term “gesundheit” (literal translation: “health”) works. Less common is the Seinfeld-inspired “You are so good looking.” Certainly a nice thing to tell somebody after they’ve sneezed. However, the phrase has led to at least one firing. Hmm, better stick with the classics.
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