Why We Say Gesundheit When Someone Sneezes

sneeze2Today I found out about the meaning of the word “gesundheit” and other sneeze etiquette around the world.

You are probably accustomed to hearing or saying “bless you” after someone sneezes. It’s simple sneeze etiquette, at least in English speaking countries. In Germany, it’s polite to say “gesundheit” after someone sneezes, which more or less means “health.” More specifically, it’s made up of the word gesund, which means healthy, and the suffix ­–heit, which means –hood. Literally, “healthy-hood.”

Foreign words run rampant in the English language, so it should come as no surprise that gesundheit has worked its way in alongside its German relatives Kindergarten, doppelganger, poltergeist, and noodle. It’s believed that gesundheit entered the English language some time in the early 20th century as Germans began to migrate to English-speaking countries such as the United States.

The word steadily gained in popularity from there, and in some parts of the English-speaking world these days, it’s almost as popular as “bless you.”

The attraction of gesundheit isn’t hard to miss. The English “bless you” has inherent religious connotations. Some today simply aren’t religious and so look for an alternative, while others have become more concerned about the political correctness of the words and phrases they use, and religion has always been a hot-button issue. Just as people are moving away from saying “Merry Christmas” in favour of “Happy Holidays,” being able to wish someone “health” rather than “blessings” is seen as more politically correct.

Wishing someone well after they sneeze is an old practice, and it is something that can be found in (almost) every corner of the world. While the actual origin of sneeze etiquette is a mystery, the most popular and most plausible theory is that people believed a sneeze was a prelude to illness, and that wishing them health or luck with what was to come was only polite.

Another popular theory is that a sneeze is “letting the demons in” which is the origin of the “bless you” response; it was supposed to guard the sneezer and responder from the Devil. However, neither of these theories is backed by much in the way of actual evidence, and we may never know why people started responding to sneezes in the ways that they do.

Whatever the case, the sneeze appears to have caused worry in many different cultures. Along with gesundheit and “bless you,” here are just a few examples of how people acknowledge another person’s sneeze around the world:

  • Gesundheit shares roots with a few other languages, such as the Dutch gezondheid, which also means health, and from there developed the Afrikaans’ very similar gesondheid. There’s also the Yiddish zu gesunt, which, you guessed it, also means “health.”
  • “Health” is the preferred response in many other countries as well. In Norwegian, it’s prosit, which means “to your health.” In Albanian, shendet. In Finnish, it’s terveydeski, which also means “for health.” In several languages, an alternative is “live long” or “have a long life,” which is pretty close to “health.” A few examples of this are the Maltese evviva, the Turkish cok yasa, and the Chechen dukha vehil or dukha yehil.
  • In others, some variant of “God bless you” is the usual response to a sneeze. Of course, these tend to encompass different gods. For instance, in Arabic, yarhamkom Allah, which means “God have mercy on you,” is somewhat common, though they also have a word for health (sahha). Along with gesundheit, in German you could also say helf Gott! (may God help you). In Mongolian, it’s burkhan ӧrshӧӧ, which means “may God forgive you.” In Punjabi, it’s Waheguru, which means “Glorious Lord.”
  • In Japan and Southern China, usually nothing is said in response to a sneeze. In both areas, the superstition developed that if you sneeze, someone somewhere is talking about you.
  • In some cultures, there are different responses to sneezes depending on how many times a person has sneezed. One example of this is the French a tes vos souhaits, a tes vos amours, and qu’elles durent toujours for the first, second, and third sneezes respectively. They translate to “to your wishes, to your loves, that they last forever.”

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • About one in three people sneeze when suddenly exposed to bright sunlight.
  • It is not true that your heart stops when you sneeze, and it’s also not true that your eyes will pop out of your head if you sneeze with them open. It’s also not going to rain if your cat sneezes, and company won’t be coming over, either (well, unless you’re expecting someone!). As you can see, there are a lot of ridiculous myths and superstitions surrounding sneezing.
  • The longest sneezing episode on record is that of Donna Griffiths from England, who sneezed for 978 days straight. At the very beginning, she was sneezing about once a minute.
  • Donna likely only got relief when she slept. You can’t sneeze when you sleep because your “sneeze nerves” are also asleep while you doze off.
  • However, a sneeze is very difficult to stop once it’s started. Just putting a finger under your nose like you see in cartoons and comedies probably isn’t going to work. If you physically pinch your nose to plug it completely, this can sometimes work.  However, be sure and un-pinch it before the sneeze happens to avoid potential damage to your sinuses.
  • A sneeze will come out at 100 miles per hour, potentially shooting millions of pathogens into the air.
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26 comments

  • I was always taught that the tradition of saying “Bless you” after a person sneezes goes back to the days of the plague. It was noticed that at the onset of catching the plague people were prone to sneeze. So to ward off the probability of it being the first symptom that the person had become infected it was commonplace to say “God bless you” – now contracted to simply “bless you”.

    • I recently found out that saying bless you is a remnants of the early religious days when people thought that your soul was released through your nose and that by saying bless you it would be returned

  • connie Gonzalez

    GOD bless you…in America

    • Not for all, big with the religious or what we were taught a chile … I say Gesundheit

    • America is not a Christian nation, therefore ‘god bless you’ is not the standard response to a sneeze. We are a country of great diversity and the responses to a sneeze are many and varied. I prefer ‘gesundheit’ or ‘to your health’ since I’m a non-religious person. Many Christians are using a more neutral form of ‘bless you’ out of respect for our rich diversity. So, in America, it’s not always ‘god bless you.’

      • America is a Christian nation. Simply study the founding fathers, our founding documents, and the holy words of the Christian Bible etched in granite in our nation’s capital and it’s monuments. The more we refuse to acknowledge this and lose the fear of almighty God and the commandments in His word, the more America will be decline. People always refer to folks as being “religious”. Religion is a curse to America. Mainstream American religion “allows” you to maintain the title “Christian” while living every way except. This is in direct disobedience to what the Bible teaches. Only a personal intimate relationship with almighty God through his son Jesus Christ will change a heart and ultimately change a life. It is the only hope for America or any other nation. God bless America.

        • wow, you’re a complete idiot. The whole reason the founding fathers came to America was to get away from the religious injustices and suffering of the old world. “The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian.” Fuck off and go back to your hole.

  • Islamic tradition is as follows:
    When one sneezes, they should say, ‘Al-hamdu-Lillaah (Praise be to Allaah).’
    The one who hears the sneezer say the above should respond with. ‘Yarhamuk Allaah (May Allaah have mercy on you).’
    If the sneezer hears the above, they should say back ‘Yahdeekum Allaah wa yuslihu baalakum (May Allaah guide you and rectify your condition).’
    Reported in Al-Bukhaari (6224) narrated from Abu Hurayrah (may Allaah be pleased with him)

  • I grew up saying gesundheit, which I was led to believe was German for bless you. However, some years ago I dated a German girl who corrected me. She told me the literal translation is good health, but in practice it was wishing good health on someone.

    I still use gesundheit.

  • Saying “gesundheit” is not common among all English speakers. It’s mainly an American thing.

  • Kristi Northcutt

    If you’re someplace where its very important that you not sneeze, for example, you’re spying on someone or hiding from a crazed serial killer, just tickle the roof of your mouth with your tongue. I’d say this works about 90% of the time for me. Much better odds of keeping that killer clown from finding you than holding your finger under yours or someone else’s nose.

  • “Prosit” isn’t norwegien in origin (though it’s used there) but latin from verb prodesse and means. may it avail you

  • In Sanskrit, “Shatam Jeevah” is the phrase which is used when someone sneezes. It means “live 100 years”.

  • Gesundheit has been in the USA longer than the 20th century. My family came here from Germany in 1754 and settled in PA.
    They always have used it.

  • In Spanish, in the Central American country I live in, we may say, “Salud” which means, “health”. We may also say, “Jesus lo socorra” (Jesus help you) or just “Jesus”.

  • Just a random person

    Since when did someone saying “God bless you” or “Merry Christmas” become offensive or not politically correct? I’m not religious but I often say both in a well meaning kind way. I would be hurt if someone found it offensive or tried to discourage me from saying either. We do live in a free country after all!

    • Dear random person,
      Your question “since when…” it’s been happening slowly over the past 5 to 10+ years, depending on the specific area of the USA that you live in. You can especially see this inside companies with a large diverse group. We were allowed to “holiday decorate” our desks and dept, and our manager asked everyone personally and individually if they would be offended if she brought in a small, table-top sized tree. Everyone was ok with it and was allowed to put their own decorations on it. Someone put on a menorah, someone else a Jewish star, someone else a Santa Claus, ECT, so it was all of our decorations, whoever wanted to participate in the “happy holidays”. NOT just Christmas.
      You can also see a change in people saying just “bless you” instead of “God bless you” in case their religion is different.

  • We say “cover your nose and wipe your face next time”.

  • In Swabian (a dialect spoken in the southwest corner of Germany) the first e in “Gesundheit” is silent, so it sounds like “Xundheit”. When someone sneezes repeatedly, it is somewhat common to jocularly respond to each subsequent sneeze with another word starting with X (not neccesarily in writing, but in pronunciation):
    1) Xundheit
    2) Xaver (a first name)
    3) Xälzbrot (correctly “G’sälzbrot”, standard german “Marmeladenbrot”, literal translation “jam bread”, a slice of bread with jam spread on it)
    4) Xangsverei (correctly ‘Gesangsverein’, translation “chorus society” or “glee club”)

  • Actually it is possible to sneeze while asleep. I’ve done it, although the sneeze did wake me.

  • Gezondheit doesn’t mean health-hood. ‘Heit’ doesn’t mean hood at all. Gezond means health, but in a way that a person is healthy. Gezondheit is just the word for healthy in general, not something you are. So in German you are gezond (healthy) and gezondheit means health.

  • A former co-worker would say, “You’re sick, go home!” 😀

    Btw, another American here who always says, ‘Gesundheit’.

  • In Ethiopia, there are many languages. However, in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, it is mostly said ‘Yimarihe’ meaning ‘get well’. In another language Wolitigna in the south, it is said ‘anjo’ meaning ‘bless you’.

  • I’m very liberal and I say bless you or god bless you or nothing just because my annoying coworker always says gahzountight (my apologies on the spelling) in the MOST pretentious way. She’s about as German as I am from tucking mars . She just wants to be over the top correct . As do I when it comes to someone’s race or gender preference but I’m not going to begin saying the German word for health when someone sneezes . If bless you is offensive , I’d really just say good health than try to to be a bougie asshole

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