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Why Say 'God Bless You' After Someone Sneezes?

By Justin Breen | September 23, 2016 5:29am | Updated on September 23, 2016 7:21am
Saying "God Bless You" after sneezing goes back centuries.
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CHICAGO — With flu viruses starting to increase as the weather cools, there will be a whole of lot sneezing going on in Chicago.

And almost as many sayings of "God Bless You" after those sneezes.

Uttering "God Bless You" or "Bless You" following a sneeze is second nature to most — and it's been that way for centuries.

The term "God Bless You" is found in the Old Testament's Book of Numbers (Number 6:24) and it was used in Christian prayers from the time of the early church onward, said Scott Moringiello, an assistant professor in DePaul's Department of Catholic Studies.

The phrase began being employed following a sneeze around 590 AD, when there was a plague in Rome. Pope Pelagius had died during the plague's outbreak and his successor, Pope Gregory the Great, mandated constant prayer to beg God's mercy on the people, according to Saint Xavier University vice president of Mission and Ministry Graziano Marcheschi.

"He instructed all the faithful to dutifully bless each other whenever they sneezed because that sneeze might be the first sign that the plague had taken hold," Marcheschi said. "The words they were to use? 'God Bless You!' With the passing centuries, it eventually became commonplace to say 'God Bless You' even when there was no immediate danger of death."

Michael Murphy, director of Catholic Studies at Loyola University Chicago, said the phrase also was advised by popes in the 13th and 14th centuries as "an authentic prayer against the effects" of a plague.

Murphy added he thinks it's neat that uttering "God Bless You" or "Bless You" is still so commonplace in society, even as it becomes more secular. Sometimes when others sneeze, Murphy's "Bless You" to the sneezer is followed by a "no thank you."

"It's interesting to note that saying something like this in an increasingly secularized world can be seen as political or aggressive," Murphy said.

Atheists prescribe a host of alternatives to "Bless You." Those include ""Gesundheit!" which is German for "[to your] health" (the Spanish equivalent is "Salud"); handing the person a tissue if you have one; or simply saying nothing at all.

Marcheschi said the power of saying "God Bless You" remains "undiminished even in our rational and increasingly secularized world."

"Frankly, I think it’s a mark of a deep-seated, resilient spirituality that won’t ever be extinguished no matter how secular the culture becomes," he said. "Deep down, most of us do believe in God and it is oddly reassuring to receive that candid and unassuming reminder every time we’re awkwardly vulnerable."

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