Friday, November 16, 2007

The Origin of "God Bless You"

My co-workers and I had a quick debate about the origin of "God bless you". I heard someone repeat the tired myth - "people used to think that when you sneezed a demon was coming out of you so they started saying God bless you". We do far too much to perpetuate baseless stereotypes of medieval Christian peasantry. At least that's the impression I get.

I replied "I've heard that too and I really don't know where it came from but that doesn't sound right to me. There was never a time when people were too dumb to know that sneezing was caused by an irritation of the nose. Ask a three year old why he sneezes. He'll tell you (without having gone through the "Enlightenment") that it's because he has something in his nose or he sniffed some pepper. So that line about the ridiculous superstitions held by our ancestors just never really convinced me. (Not to say that people haven't believed some really stupid things... Just look at some of the stuff we still believe).

So it's Friday - I decided to fire up Google (just briefly!) and see what I found out. Here it is: read em' and weep boys...

According to the Wikipedia article on "God Bless You", Snopes Urban Legends lists the origin of the phrase as the aforementioned explanation.

A much more feasible explanation for the origin of the phrase is found here (as well as mentioned first in the Wikipedia article). This site claims that Pope Gregory the Great was its originator.

Finally, Medterms rightly compares the practical application of the phrase with the German - 'gesundheit'.

Just in case anyone ever asks you...

3 comments:

Dave Gudeman said...

Given that the Wikipaedia article lists similar phrase in lots of other languages, I suspect that this custom is far older than Pope Gregory.

Tim A. Troutman said...

I think you're right and I wouldn't have a hard time believing that at all. Perhaps Pope Gregory merely popularized it or maybe he even had nothing to do with it at all.

Dana Lee said...

According to the book How Did It Begin? by R. Brasch, some ancients believed that when a man sneezed, he was nearest to death. Brasch adds: “The fear was based on an erroneous but widely held notion. Man’s soul was considered to be the essence of life. The fact that dead men never breathed led to the fallacious deduction that his soul must be breath. . . . It is thus not surprising that from the earliest days people learned to respond to a sneeze with apprehension and the fervent wish to the sneezer that God may help and bless him and preserve his life. Somehow in medieval times this early origin of the custom must have been forgotten because it was Pope Gregory the Great who was credited with having introduced the saying ‘God bless you,’ to anyone who sneezed.”