I was asked the other day about why, in English, we say ‘Bless you’ to someone after they sneeze. And why only for sneezing, and not coughing?
Well, the answer seems to be…..nobody knows! Sorry!
Actually it was first cited back in 77A.D which I guess explains why the reasons have long been lost in history.
Maybe the best source of information is at: http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/blessyou.asp.
The English on that website is a little challenging so I’ll summarise it here. The main suggestions are:
1. By saying ‘Bless you’ you are protecting the sneezer. To bless someone means to ask God to be kind to them.
2. People used to think that your heart stopped when you sneezed. Saying ‘Bless you’ meant either ‘I hope your heart starts again’, or, ‘Congratulations, your heart started again’!!!
3. Sneezing was connected with illnesses, for which, in the past, there were no cures for. Therefore, if you sneezed, you were possibly dying, so saying ‘Bless you’ was like saying ‘I’m sorry you are dying. May God now look after you.’
4. However, some people believed that sneezing was actually lucky, and if you said ‘Bless you’, you could also be lucky.
5. Another theory is that it is lucky to be sneezed on and ‘Bless you’ was a way of saying ‘Thank you’. This meaning of the phrase is still used today, often by older people to younger people, or a teacher to a child. For example, if I gave my grandma a gift, she would say ‘Oh, bless you. That’s so kind.’
People nowadays say ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezes without thinking about what it means. It is just polite to do so. But if you sneeze and someone says ‘Bless you’ to you, what do you say back?…
Just ‘Thank you,’ is fine. And if you sneeze you should say, ‘Excuse me.’
I hope you don’t have too much practice sneezing, though!