Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: The origin of saying "Bless you!" when someone sneezes stems from an ancient desire to safeguard the sneezer's soul or to commend the dying to the mercy of God.
Origins: It's expected we'll say "Bless you!" (or "God bless!") when someone nearby sneezes, but does anyone really know why we do this? Are we trying to protect the sneezers from evil spirits? Are we fending off the Devil? Is this a remnant of an ancient recognition that sneezers aren't long for this world, thus we commend their souls to God even as we wash our hands of them? Are we congratulating them on their impending good luck? (As silly as this may sound now, sneezing was at one long-ago time seen as a fortuitous portent.)
Some questions, no matter how simple, don't have one knowable answer. Though a number of "explanations" exist for this custom, nothing points to any one of them being its origin.
Common among these explanations are:
We look to what has been recorded about this practice of blessing a sneezer for any clues to the reasons that prompted its origin. Once again, we are disappointed; although the practice is old enough for mention of it to surface in ancient writings (the earliest from
The oldest sightings mentioned in Opie and Tatem's A Dictionary of Superstitions are:
[Pliny, Natural History]The earliest mentions of the practice carry no hint of the reasons for the practice, leaving us with a mystery.
Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes, an observation which Tiberius Caesar, they say, the most unsociable of men, as we all know, used to exact, when riding in his chariot even?
[Apuleius, Golden Ass, AD 150]
'Bless you, my dear!' he said, and 'bless you, bless you!' at the second and third sneeze.
[Greek Anthology, ante AD 500]
Dick cannot blow his nose whene'er he pleases, His nose so long is, and his arm so short; Nor ever cries, God bless me! when he sneezes — He cannot hear so distant a report.
Protective oath? (And, if so, was it to keep the soul in or the demons out?) Commendation of the dying to God's mercy? Something to do with the sneezer's heart stopping? Recognition of good fortune? A response, in substance if not in kind, to the utterance of another? There's no way to tell now; the reason behind the origin is lost in the mists of time.
Of the five most touted answers, the last is the reason for the practice's survival into modern times and could even be the key to the origin of the custom.
The need to recognize that one has been spoken to or saluted in some other fashion (an acquaintance waves from across the street, for example) lies behind our habit of acknowledging greetings with a like degree of civility and friendliness even if we don't much care for the person hailing us. Such responses have become so deeply trained into us that for us humans the hardest thing to say is nothing at all.
These days, one says "Bless you!" because it is expected, not out of concern for the wellbeing of the sneezer's soul or heart, a need to disassociate oneself from the dying, or envy for another's presumed luck. We do it because we've been taught this is an obligatory response whose omission would seem glaring. We "bless" out of a desire to not be perceived as impolite, a perception that would take root if the sneeze were to be received in silence.
In the final analysis, it may not be as much about souls leaping out or demons clawing to get in as it is about simple human acknowledgement of another's presence.
Barbara "snot for the day" Mikkelson
Last updated: 13 July 2007
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