What's the meaning of the phrase 'Bless you'?
'Bless you!', or sometimes 'God bless you!' or 'God bless!', is a response often said when someone sneezes.
It is also used in a direct literal way, to convey a blessing on someone.
Why do we say 'Bless you when someone sneezes'?
No one knows why we say 'Bless you' after someone sneezes. We don't bless coughs or yawns or hiccups so there must be something significant about sneezing, it's just that we don't know what.
There are several theories as to the origin of 'Bless you!' in this context, which are listed and considered below.
Like many phrases for which there is no definitive origin, for example 'the whole nine yards' and 'the real McCoy', the guesses that people put forward as to their origin are many and various. For the most part the suggested explanations about 'Bless you!' refer to some evil or illness that is indicated by the sneeze and the need to bless the sneezer to protect them from it.
Top of the list, in the UK at least, is the idea that in Tudor England a sneeze was a sign that someone had the plague and a blessing was showing compassion for them on their way to their inevitable death. Ask any man in a pub in England (sorry guys, it is always men) and he will tell you "'Bless you!', that comes from the Black Death doesn't it". Well, it's possible, although the fact that sneezing isn't a symptom of bubonic plague must count against it.
Another health related theory is that a person needs to be blessed after a sneeze because of the notion that the heart temporarily stops when sneezing and help may be needed to get it going again. Again, fact counts against this, as the heart doesn't stop when we sneeze, although it's possible that some people's belief that it does may have spawned the phrase.
Other explanations revolve around the blessing being a protection from evil. It has been suggested that medieval society used to believe that a person's soul was projected out of the body during a sneeze and the blessing was protection against Satan grabbing it before it could get back. Vice versa, there was also a supposed belief that the sneeze expelled an existing demon from the body and the blessing protected against it getting back in. Again, these beliefs are clearly nonsensical but enough people may have believed them for the phrase to have been coined that way.
Similarly, two theories that relate to the age-old presumed connection between sneezing and good luck suggest that either the sneezer or the listener was bestowed with good fortune by the sneeze and the blessing was in thanks for that.
All of the above proposed explanations of the origin of people saying 'Bless you!" after a sneeze suffer from the common problem of coming equipped with no evidence to support them.
What we do know from documentary evidence is that the Ancient Romans had a very similar custom. They 'saluted', not blessed, someone who sneezed. The Roman author Gaius Secundus, a.k.a. Pliny the Elder, recorded it in Natural History, AD77, which was translated into English in 1856:
Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes, an observation which Tiberius Caesar, they say, the most unsociable of men, as we all know, used to exact, when riding in his chariot even?
So, while the 'bless you!" benediction isn't found in early Latin texts, the custom of acknowledging a sneeze as something significant was clearly part of the Roman culture and the fact that Pliny didn't feel the need to explain why sneezes were saluted indicates that his readers would have been familiar with it. There are other Roman texts that refer to the practice but sadly they don't offer any explanations either.
The first text that alludes to 'blessing' a sneeze is Erasmus's Familiar Colloquies, 1526, in a section headed 'Forms of well-wishing':
To one that Sneezes. May it be lucky and happy to you. God keep you. May it be for your Health. God bless it to you.
So, in Erasmus's day the blessing was to wish that someone's sneeze would bring them good luck and good health. By the 17th century the belief seemed to centre on the blessing being a protection from illness, as recorded by the English author Sir Thomas Browne in Vulgar Errors, 1646:
Concerning Sternutation or Sneezing, and the custome of saluting or blessing upon that motion, it is … generally beleeved to derive its originall from a disease, wherein Sternutation proved mortall, and such as Sneezed died.
This is reinforced in the writings of the English writer John Aubrey in his collection of customs and traditions titled Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaism, 1688:
"We have a Custome, that when one sneezes, every one els putts off his hatt, and bowes, and cries God bless ye Sir. I have heard, or read a story that many yeares since, that Sneezing was an Epidemical Disease and very mortal, which caused this yet received Custome."
So, in 17th century England it was believed that one should say 'God bless you' to someone who sneezed to protect them from dying from the disease that the sneeze indicated. Of course, people believed all sorts of things in the 17th century that we now know not to be true, not least that we can sneeze and live to tell the tale, whether we are blessed for it or nor.
It may well be that people said 'God bless you' without really knowing why, as we do now. Superstitous social conventions persist long after the real belief underlying them is forgotten. People in the UK salute magpies with 'Good morning, Mr. Magpie' or touch wood to establish the truth of something they have said; both of these being done without knowing why.
Browne and Aubrey would have been Latin scholars and Pliny's work would have been familiar to them. It is likely that the social custom of acknowledging a sneeze came down to us from its beginnings in ancient Rome and that the 'plague/luck/Satan' explanations added later as a back formation.
Our best bet is to seek out an ancient Roman to ask, which is another way of saying, we just don't know.