It’s flu season, and you’re most likely blessing people after they sneeze so often you’re beginning to feel a little bit like a priest. Of all the peculiar things the human body does, sneezing is not all that unusual—foreign particles in the air, viruses, changes in temperature—they can all trigger our bodies to forcefully expel our nasal passages in an attempt to keep us healthy. Besides, we’ve got these, big strange noses protruding out of our faces…they’ve got to do something, right? But why do we “bless” someone after they sneeze, and not when they cough or burp or hiccup?
The whole sneezing obsession may have got started in ancient Greece where sneezes were thought to be auspicious signs from the gods. Eastern cultures believed a random sneeze meant someone was talking about or thinking of the sneezer at that same time. In India, sneezes were not good luck, but could be signs of possible misfortune looming. During the Middle Ages in Europe, sneezing was believed to be potentially fatal because of the excessive amount of breath expelled. And it is this belief that is the likely reason we still say “god bless you” after someone sneezes, even though we know sneezes rarely ever cause death.
In virtually every language on the planet, there is some word or phrase politely uttered when someone else sneezes. The most common used terms here in the U.S. are, of course, “bless you” or “god bless you” and the German word “Gesudheit,” which means “good health.” My personal favorite is Jerry Seinfeld’s suggestion: “You are so good looking!” After all, many of us are at our least good looking during a sneezing fit, so why not get a little confidence boost?
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