Why We Say ‘Bless You’ When Someone Sneezes
Did you know this?
We’ve all heard it — that loud expulsion of air heralding a massive sneeze and some disembodied voice yelling out “Bless you!” But have you ever wondered why we do it? Is saying “Bless you” just a social convention, or is there more to it?
Well, the story behind the saying is more interesting than you might think, and steeped in history and superstition. Nobody quite knows where the saying first originated, but there are plenty of guesses.
By far the most popular theory is that the phrase started during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. One of the first symptoms was explosive coughing and sneezing, and Pope Gregory the Great reportedly ordered everyone to pray for divine intervention. He decreed that people should say “God bless you” after a person sneezed in the hope for protection from an otherwise certain death.
Another more superstitious theory is that the phrase originated from the belief that sneezing caused a person’s soul to expel from their body, which meant it was doomed to wander aimlessly in the ether forever. Others believed that sneezing could allow the devil or other evil spirits inside a person’s body, so saying “Bless you” helped protect them from evil. Conversely, some believed that a sneeze was the body’s way of forcing evil spirits out, and that saying “Bless you” prevented them from returning.
We’ve all heard the rumor that your heart stops beating when you sneeze, so some speculate saying “Bless you” was a way of welcoming the sneezer back from the dead. According to cardiologist David Rutlen, it is actually possible for your heart to momentarily pause while you sneeze, so this practice is at least grounded in a bit of science.
Cultures all over the world have different responses to sneezing. Of course, we’re all familiar with gesundheit, a German word loosely translated to mean “health.” In China, you might heart “yi bai sui,” which means “100 years” or “liang bai sui,” which means “200 years.”
Robert Schrader, a travel blogger who taught English in China for many years, explained to Reader’s Digest the origins of these two phrases.
“One day I sneezed, and my teacher said something I didn’t understand. ‘What was that?’ I asked, reaching for a tissue. ‘Yi bai sui,’ she replied, which means, 100 years. ‘Since your heart stops when you sneeze, in China we say ‘One hundred years,’ to wish you a long life,’” Schrader said.
So, if you make a habit of saying “Bless you,” it could be because of souls leaping out of our bodies, or demons clawing to get back in, or dying a grisly death from the plague. Any more, most of us say it simply to be polite and courteous.
Below are some interesting facts about sneezes:
1. Longest sneezing fit
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Donna Griffiths holds the record for longest sneezing fit. She sneezed for 976 days, from Jan. 13 1981 to Sept. 16, 1983. Apparently, she sneeze 1 million times in the first year alone!
2. Sunshine-induced sneezing
Some people sneeze every time they see the sun, a condition called the photic sneeze reflex. It’s also called ACHOO syndrome (appropriately enough), which stands for autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst syndrome.
3. Speedy sneezes
According to a 2014 MIT study, sneezes can travel at a speed of up to 100 miles per hour and the wet spray can radiate for up to 200 feet!
4. Plucking your eyebrows
If you’ve ever wondered why you sneeze while plucking your eyebrows, it likely has to do with something called the trigeminal nerve, which sends signals between your face and your brain. Melanie Grossman, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University, told The Cut that it’s possible your brain perceives eyebrow plucking as irritation in your nose, which causes a sneeze.