Why Americans say “Bless you!” when they hear someone sneeze.

Why Americans say “Bless you!” when they hear someone sneeze.

Americanism: Bless You
Image Source: https://what-if.xkcd.com/55/

EXPLANATION: When someone sneezes in the United States, more often than not someone else says “Bless you!” The phrase first originated as “God bless you.” [This may happen in other English-speaking countries too, but perhaps not as often as in the US!]


Below are just a few of the multiple possibilities for its origins and no one is exactly sure of the right answer.

ORIGIN 1. People used to believe a sneeze caused someone to expel their soul out of their body, and so “God bless you” or “Bless you” was used as a protection against the devil snatching your soul.


ORIGIN 2. During the Middle Ages in 14th century Europe, the bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) was widespread. Because it was usually a fatal disease, and people were often very religious, the phrase “God Bless You” offered a benediction to someone who might no longer be living soon.

REASON #1. Nowadays, it is generally just meant to be the polite thing to say, which is probably the main reason why this practice persists.

SIDE NOTE:  In place of “Bless you,” some Americans also say “Gesundheit,” the German word for “health.” The appearance of this phrase was due to the numerous German immigrants who moved to the United States. Many Americans do not even realize this is a German word (and usually are unaware of the true meaning).   

A FUNNY STORY: Once when my mom was visiting me in Germany where I lived temporarily, she commented that it was strange there was a magazine called “Gesundheit.”  She wondered aloud why would there be a magazine with the title “Bless You.”  I laughed, explaining that the word meant health, not bless you! ~Dana