Why do we still bother to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes, anyway?

29 Aug

In light of a little tempest in a teapot which has apparently erupted recently over a Georgia college prof ostensibly banning ‘bless you’ in his class (or maybe not), and also recalling a satirical CBC story last year about the Canadian government banning civil servants from using the phrase (which fooled a lot of people (me too), who thought it was real, since today, such craziness is plausible), I’m once again wondering, as I long have, why we still bother to say ‘bless you’, anyway, whenever someone sneezes. (It amuses me to hear atheists and agnostics completely unthinkingly uttering the phrase, just like everyone else…)

The origins of the practice are murky; there are differing theories on how it arose; according to Wikipedia:

The practice of blessing someone who sneezes, dating as far back as at least 77 AD, however, is far older than most specific explanations can account for.[9] Gregory I became Pope in 590 AD as an outbreak of the bubonic plague was reaching Rome. In hopes of fighting off the disease, he ordered unending prayer and parades of chanters through the streets. At the time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague. The blessing (“God bless you!”) became a common effort to halt the disease.[7]

Some have offered an explanation suggesting that people once held the folk belief that a person’s soul could be thrown from their body when they sneezed,[9] that sneezing otherwise opened the body to invasion by the Devil or evil spirits,[10][11] or that sneezing was the body’s effort to force out an invading evil presence.[9] In these cases, “God bless you” or “bless you” is used as a sort of shield against evil. The Irish Folk story “Master and Man” by Thomas Crofton Croker, collected by William Butler Yeats, describes this variation.[12] Moreover, in the past some people may have thought that the heart stops beating during a sneeze, and that the phrase “God bless you” encourages the heart to continue beating.[9][10][11]

So, certainly, there is no consensus on the origin of the practice…

Since we know now that sneezing does not necessarily mean bubonic plague (thankfully!), or heart troubles, and also thanks to now basically fully understanding the causes of sneezing, we know better than to attribute sneezing to demonic fits and such, there really isn’t any reason for continuing the practice, other than ‘cultural inertia’, one might say. We say ‘bless you’ because our ancestors have done so for ages… No other reason.

I don’t see any reason to bother continuing to say it. I suppose nobody can think of anything else to say instead (what would you say, ‘Wow; that was a doozy!’), and nobody wants to just ignore it, thinking it important to acknowledge it, somehow, as if saying nothing would somehow be ignorant or rude… Yet no-one thinks someone rude if they ignore someone coughing or farting…

As a reactionary traditionalist rather than a knee-jerk trad-con, I don’t see the point in preserving tradition merely for tradition’s sake, if a particular tradition seems absurd or unnecessary, or even in some cases counter-productive, e.g. young men being expected to adhere to many or even every single old-fashioned chivalrous tradition, in light of young women today not always being gracious about gestures such as opening doors, pulling out chairs, hanging up coats, etc., even being resentful and reacting negatively against such; or, even if they still welcome and even expect such, or things like men paying for dates, hardly keeping up their part of chivalry by behaving like proper, submissive ladies, and sometimes, if not often, these days abusing the generosity of would-be suitors paying for drinks, meals, etc., exploiting men as suckers, not intending to settle with any, just milking them for free nights out on the town, etc., as some have even boasted of doing in magazine columns and blog posts… (Note: I’m not opposed to chivalry in principle; I would love to see a return to it, on the part of both sexes, but it seems absurd for only one sex to be expected to, in some or all respects, without reciprocal actions, behaviour, and demeanour on the part of the other. Why refer to all women still as ‘ladies’ but not referring to all men as ‘gentlemen’, esp. in labelling public restrooms ‘men’s’ and ‘ladies’ rather than either both ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’, or just ‘women’ and ‘men’ instead…) And then there’s the ‘tradition’ of giving diamond engagement rings, which is actually not an age-old tradition, but a relatively recent custom

But I digress. My point is, not slavishly adhering to any particular tradition just for the sake of tradition, but evaluating each separately on its particular merits – or lack thereof, in today’s world.

As for sneezing, it’s just a natural biological function; why not just ignore it?

No big deal; just a thought…

Then again, if ever, as per the satirical CBC piece, anyone DOES come to object to saying ‘bless you’ on secularist, progressive, politically-correct grounds, as being ‘offensive’ to the non-religious or some such bullshit, I’ll be the first to defend people saying it if they want to, maybe even deliberately, in defiance. 😉


Posted by on August 29, 2014 in on the lighter side


3 responses to “Why do we still bother to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes, anyway?

  1. tertioptus

    August 29, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Than I suppose you may want to look a Christmas as well.

  2. Will S.

    August 30, 2014 at 7:23 am

    If you follow my links, you’ll see I disagree with ‘Santa Claus’.


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