While at work one evening, I heard the attending doctor sneeze and immediately responded with “Bless you!” As the night continued on, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had responded so quickly, almost without even thinking about it.
So, I decided to do a little research into the origins of the phrase…
Although it was used by both Hebrews (found in Numbers 6:24) and early Christians as a benediction, there is no evidence in the Bible of the use of God bless you in regards to sneezing.
This practice may have begun some time during the first century AD and was mostly used in combination with superstitions surrounding illness and possession by evil spirits.
It was believed by some that a sneeze was the body’s way of expelling evil spirits; others thought that sneezing actually created an opportunity for the body to be possessed (hence the blessing to keep the devil from stealing their soul); and a less popular belief was that the heart stopped when a person sneezed and blessing them welcomed them back to life.
One legend even states that Pope Gregory the Grat decreed that any time someone sneezed, they were to be blessed by saying God bless you as a way to provided protection from the plague.
Variations of the benediction God bless you can be found in almost every culture across the globe: from the Spanish Salud to the Irish/Gaelic Sláinte and the widely popular German Gesundheit, all are wishes for good health.
Regardless of which superstition came first, this phrase is considered a polite way of showing common courtesy to our fellow humans and I’ll probably keep on using it.