One day in 2004 I was sitting in a coffee shop in Berkeley, California, when I had a bout of sneezing. I was startled when my sneezes elicited a chorus of “Bless you!” from several strangers. When I recovered I sniffed a nasal-sounding “Thank you” to the room. This surprised me because I’m from Australia, where a sneeze usually goes ignored by strangers. I’ve since observed that the sneezing etiquette in the United States dictates that “Bless you” is a polite response to a sneeze, although not everyone sees it that way.
On August 18, 2014, 17-year-old Kendra Turner claimed to be suspended from Dyer County High School, in Newbern, Tennessee, for simply saying, “Bless you” to a classmate who sneezed. That evening she posted the following message to her Facebook page:
“Today my teacher sent me to the office Bc Someone sneezed and I said bless you. She said we do not do Godly speaking in my class. I stood up for my belief and said I have a constitutional right to speak about My God!! So if any other teacher wants to get on to me for sticking up for my religion then go right ahead bc in the end I will win bc I’m doing what God wants me to do!!! Thank you to the rest of my class for defending me when I got sent out! Love my class! Especially Emileigh Newman!! #ImStandingMyGround #MyGodIsStronger #SorrynotSorry”1
Turner claimed she was singled out over her religious beliefs, and that she was merely standing up for her faith. As she said, “I want God to be able to be talked about in school. I want them to realize that God is in control and they’re not.”2
However, it seems that this wasn’t a case of repressing Christian values, or political correctness taken to extremes. The school’s Assistant Principal Lynne Garner stated that the incident was blown up out of proportion on social media.
Turner was not disciplined for using religious speech but for violating the teacher’s no talking policy and causing a disruption in the classroom during a test.
In Roman times, blessing someone after a sneeze was obligatory among people of gentle breeding. Not much has changed today. For many people, saying, “Bless you” when someone sneezes isn’t a sneezing benediction, but is a politeness routine. That is, unless you’re a student in the middle of a test and your teacher demands silence in the classroom. A sneeze is an involuntary action and “Bless you” is a formulaic response. It is an acknowledgment meaning something akin to “are you alright?” Some people become offended when you say, “Bless you” to them. To these people, the phrase has religious connotations and is therefore an imposition of religious beliefs. It may even be interpreted as a form of religious harassment. Others get offended when you don’t say it to them when they sneeze, even if they’re not religious. To these people, saying, “Bless you” in reply to a sneeze is a “common courtesy” and they think that it’s rude to not respond. (Even if they should be more concerned about spreading germs.)
Just like the move away from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays”, atheists, humanists, and skeptics have called for a secular alternative to “Bless you”. Some suggestions include that we replace it with a foreign language term such as “Gesundheit!”; that we offer a tissue to the sneezer, or we say nothing at all.
In “The Good Samaritan” episode of the TV show Seinfeld, Jerry says, “If you want to make a person feel better after they sneeze, you shouldn’t say ‘God bless you.’ You should say ‘You’re so good looking!’”3 His friends then take to saying “You’re so good looking!” whenever someone sneezes. In real life, the cast and crew had hoped that fans would adopt the phrase. Well, at least one fan did. In July 2008, a group of colleagues attended a retreat where a female worker told her colleagues that whenever she or her husband sneezed, the other responded by saying, “You’re so good looking!” This became a running joke throughout the retreat, although co-worker John Preston took it too far. Back in the workplace, Preston sent the woman a series of emails in which he told her repeatedly that she was “so good looking”. This was part of a series of actions that led to his dismissal for sexual harassment.4
We don’t say anything when someone coughs, hiccups, snores, sniffs, blows their nose, or burps, at least, not in English, so why do people say, “Bless you!” when we sneeze? There are many myths and superstitions surrounding sneezing, and many theories about the origins of saying, “Bless you!” to a sneeze. One belief is that it was feared that a powerful sneeze would expel a person’s soul through the nose and mouth. Saying “God Bless you!” would guard the soul from Satan until it could reenter the body safely. Alternatively, the sneeze was thought to be the body’s way of expelling an invading evil spirit. Uttering, “Bless you” would magically protect the sneezer from the evil spirit re-entering his body. Another theory is that people believed that the heart would stop beating during a sneeze (although it doesn’t). Saying, “Bless you” allegedly encouraged the heart to continue beating, or welcomed the sneezer back to life.
One of the most popular origin theories is that people believed a sneeze was the first sign of the bubonic plague. Saying, “Bless you” would prevent the disease from taking hold, or it was the equivalent of saying “Requiescat in Pace” because the end was nigh. This coinage is attributed to Pope Gregory I in the sixth century during an outbreak of the Black Death. Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend gives an account of the pestilence in Rome at this time. “In this manere, sometime snesying they deyed; so that when any persone was herd snesying, anone they that were by said to hym, God helpe you, or Cryst help.”5 However, sneezing responses go back further than Saint Gregory the Great’s tenure during the Dark Ages. Buddhist scriptures credit the custom to Buddha; while the Talmudic tradition teaches that the practice dates from the time of Jacob. The Greeks traced it back to the legend of Prometheus, the image of clay that came to life with a sneeze and was greeted with a blessing. The Romans replied to a sneeze with Tibi Jupiter adsit (“May Jupiter preserve you!”).6 Christianity then adopted the phrase by simply turning “Jupiter” into “God”.
Modern responses to sneezing are different across languages. In some Islamic countries, “Alhamdulillah” (“Praise be to God”) is said to the sneezer. In Icelandic they say Guð hjálpi þér! (“God help you!”). However, sneezes can precede illness, so references to health, wealth, and luck are more common than blessings. In Germany, it’s polite to say “Gesundheit!” when someone sneezes, which means something similar to “Health” and is already a popular alternative to “Bless you” in the United States. Italians say “Salute!” which also means “Health!” while Swedish “Prosit!” means “To your health!” As you can see, responses to sneezes also function as drinking toasts in many languages.
There is a myth that Chinese people bow when someone sneezes. Instead, they wish a long life upon the sneezer. In some languages, there are different responses depending on how many times a person has sneezed. In Mexico, the first sneeze elicits Salud! (“Health”), the second Dinero! (“Money”), and the third Amor! (“Love”). In other countries, the response to a sneeze is onomatopoeic, that is, a vocal imitation of a sound, like the English “Atchoo!” In Korea, if a close friend sneezes you might respond with the echoic sound, “Eichi!” In Japan, there is an old superstition that if you sneeze once, someone is praising you. If you sneeze twice, someone is criticizing you. Three sneezes means you are being scolded; while four sneezes means you’re probably catching a cold… Japanese people occasionally respond to a sneeze with Odaijini (“Take care”), but most often they will simply ignore a stranger’s sneezes, as many Australians do.
Ten years later, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Denver, Colorado, as I write this article. As good timing would have it, I had a fit of sneezing. Yet no one responded with, “Bless you!” Perhaps the custom is slowly on its way out in the United States too? At any rate, “Bless you” is a linguistic relic and there are lots of reminders of our religious past in our present language. Few people know that “Goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with you” but the farewell doesn’t have any religious meaning in modern usage. For some, “Bless you” is a blessing in disguise, but for many people, the phrase is about as religious as when we curse “Jesus Christ!” or say “Goodbye”.
- Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/kendra.turner.372/posts/1458967521053709
- Dyersburg State Gazette. 2014. DCHS responds to ISS incident involving student. August 20. http://www.stategazette.com/story/2110930.html
- The Good Samaritan. Seinfeld. Season 3, Episode 20. Aired March 4, 1992.
- Kauffman, Clark. 2009. “Seinfeld” joke gets man canned for harassment. The Des Moines Register. August 22. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20090823/NEWS01/908230361/1001/NEWS
- Jacobus de Voragine. 1483. The Golden Legend. Westminster: William Caxton.
- The Catholic World. Monthly Magazine of General Literature and Science. 1866. Volume III. Ne York: Lawrence Kehoe.
This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 4.