What is your favorite response to a sneeze?
Many reflexively say “Gesundheit” without even knowing what this word means. According to An Uncommon History of Common Things (National Geographic, 2009, p 73), this is German for “healthiness” or “good health”. (It can also be used as a drinking salute.) Many other cultures have their own responses. Ancient Greeks, for example, would say “Long life” which ancient Romans said “Jupiter preserve you”. The traditional response in Russia is “Be healthy”, and childrenh are also told “Grow big”. A Chinese child will be told “May you live 100 years”.
But why is a wish for good health considered necessary? In ancient times, people thought the force of a sneeze could propel a person’s soul out of the body. Perhaps some kind of expression could stop evil spirits from making off with the soul.
Then there was The Plague. According to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor (http://writersalmanac.org/), on February 16, 600, Pope Gregory declared “God bless you” to be the proper response. Sneezing could be an omen of death, since many dying people fell into sneezing fits. Pope Gregory introduced “God bless you” when the plague was at its height in Europe, hoping that a quick prayer would protect the sneezer. As the plague spread across Europe, the new response spread with it and has survived to this day.
It’s amazing how many of our modern customs have had ancient origins.