How often does one hear the phrase “bless you” without giving it a second thought? Be it in wintertime, when a dreaded cold can strike through an entire office, or in late spring when the airborne spores of hay fever set throats itching and noses twitching. At all times of year the phrase can be heard, from the schoolyard to the crowded commuter train, across all corners of the globe.
“Bless you” falls into that strange category of phrases that is so common, so ubiquitous, that its origin and meaning have almost been forgotten. It is a phrase that trips unthinkingly from one’s lips—it exists only as a subconscious reflex to an insignificant natural phenomenon.
But where does the little command come from? What do we mean when we say “bless you,” or “God bless you” to give the phrase in full, and what are we really trying to communicate? The origins of the phrase are uncertain, but the obvious religious overtones are suggestive of a concern that sneezing somehow leaves one vulnerable.
One of the most compelling explanations for the origin of the phrase is that it derives from a papal decree supposedly issued during the reign of Pope Gregory I. Also known as Gregory the Great, he assumed the papacy in 590, at a time when the bubonic plague was raging through Europe. An early sign that the virus had entered a victim was a sneeze, so on or around 6 February 600 AD, the Pope is attributed with suggesting that God’s blessing be offered to anyone who sneezes in order to protect against falling ill.
Another theory of uncertain origin, but perhaps dating to the middle ages, was that the act of sneezing left the body spiritually unguarded, giving an opportunity for the Devil to enter the soul. Uttering “God bless you” upon the occasion of a sneeze would provide the necessary protection from devilish intent, and ensure the soul remained clean.
A similar rationale for the blessing, also of unknown provenance, was that it safeguarded against the Devil returning into the body. Some believed that the act of sneezing actually expelled the Devil from the soul, and that uttering “bless you” would ensure that Devil could not make a swift re-entry.
Whatever the true origin of the spiritual command, it has slipped into common usage, and the notion of confronting a sneeze with any other response seems entirely alien. Whether safeguarding the soul, or staving off the plague, it is the only proper way to respond to a sneeze. Even for the most zealous none-believers, saying “bless you” has become as routine as saying “thank you” in response to a door held open, or as natural as exchanging a hello with a neighbour in the street.
Photo Credit: © INTERFOTO / Alamy
Photo Caption: A depiction of the Holy Spirit whispering into Gregory the Great’s ear, circa 983.