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.”

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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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  • 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”.

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  • connie Gonzalez

    GOD bless you…in America

    • Peg

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

  • Harun Bhaijee

    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)

  • Tom Collins

    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.

  • TChristy

    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.

  • karen

    “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”.

  • Kokanee

    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.