Why do we say "bless you" when someone sneezes?
Getting to the bottom of a sniffly situation
The daily niceties we say to one another tend to be on the secular side.
“Hello.” “How are you?” “Sorry.” “Excuse me.” A lot of the things we are expected to say to one another are pleasant, sure, but also bland.
Then there’s the outlier: In America, when someone sneezes, you’re supposed to say, “bless you.” It’s automatic, almost devoid of any meaning at this point, but it must have had meaning at some point, right?
The internet will tell you a few widespread explanations, all of which Snopes says are unfounded. Some claim that people once thought your soul left your body when you sneezed and the “bless you” was a protection meant to prevent Satan from snatching it up. There are supposedly others that thought a sneeze was the expulsion of a devil who had already taken up residence in your body, and the blessing was intended to block reentry. There was even a belief that sneezing stopped the heart, and a blessing was required to either return life or celebrate its return.
Are any of these explanations the true origin of our peculiar habit of blessing each other when we sneeze? Perhaps, but as of now, there just isn’t any proof.
There is, however, a long history to whatever it is, as the phrase is mentioned in writings from as early as 77 BCE. Regardless of its reason for existence, the reason for its continuation into modern culture, Snopes believes, is simple: It’s expected. To sit silently by while someone sneezes is rude. The polite response is to matter-of-factly bless them.
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