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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Aachoo! Origin of the Sneeze

When someone nearby sneezes, it’s expected we’ll say “Bless you” or “God Bless!” Where and when did this practice begin? Are we trying to protect the sneezers from evil spirits? Are we warding off the Devil? Is this a remnant of an ancient recognition that sneezers aren’t long for this world, or are we congratulating them on their impending good luck?

Silly as all this sounds, there are several common explanations for the origin of blessing sneezers. Among them are:

* At one time people believed a man’s soul could be inadvertently thrust from his body by an explosive sneeze, thus “Bless you!” was a protective oath uttered to safeguard the temporarily expelled and vulnerable soul from being snatched up by Satan (who was believed to always be nearby.) the purpose of the oath was to cast a temporary shield over the flung-out soul which would protect it just long enough for it to regain the protection of the corporeal body.

* On the flip side, the sneeze itself was the expulsion of a demon or evil spirit which had taken up residence in a person. Therefore, although the “Bless you!” was again a protective charm meant to protect the sneezer from evil, in this version it was meant to ward off the re-entry of an evil spirit which a tormented soul had just ride itself of.

* The heart was believed to momentarily stop during a sneeze (it doesn’t), thus the ‘Bless you!” was uttered either as a supplication for life to return as congratulations upon the heart’s successful restart.

The earliest origins of blessing a sneeze date at least to the Middle Ages when it was thought that sneezing expelled evil spirits or was dangerous to a person’s soul. There is also the theory that it became popular as a prayer for the welfare of the sneezer during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Regardless, over the centuries, it has become the socially acceptable etiquette to say, “(God) Bless you.” In Germany, one might hear, “Gesundheit,” Hispanic countries, “Salud,” Korea, “eichi.”

Such responses have become so deeply ingrained in us that we find it difficult to refrain from saying nothing at all—even when a stranger sneezes.

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