How have I gotten to this advanced stage of life while still being uncomfortable regarding proper sneeze etiquette? The traditional blase “God bless you” just sounds too much like a violation of using God’s name in vain. That probably sounds nit-picky to most of you… but I just cringe when everyone fires off a barrage of thoughtless “God bless you’s.”
The more sophisticated among us can shift into foreign dialects with a more palatable “Gesundheit!” Of course, once you apply the translation… you are right back at the uncomfortable starting point.
Some of the foreign alternatives don’t roll off the English speaking tongue quite so glibly:
When one sneezes, one should say ALHAMDULILLAH. (Bukhari)
In reply to this, one who hears (the person who has sneezed say Alhamdulillah) should say YARHAMU KALLAH. (Bukhari)
The person who has sneezed must reply by saying: YAHDEE KUMULLAHU WAYUSLIHU BAALAKUM. (Bukhari)
That sounds dangerously close to terrorist code speech to me.
If you want the Straight Dope on the origination of the custom here is the latest research, which traces it back to its papal roots:
The custom of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze was begun literally as a blessing. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) ascended to the Papacy just in time for the start of the plague (his successor succumbed to it). Gregory (who also invented the ever-popular Gregorian chant) called for litanies, processions and unceasing prayer for God’s help and intercession. Columns marched through the streets chanting, “Kyrie Eleison” (Greek for “Lord have mercy”). When someone sneezed, they were immediately blessed (“God bless you!”) in the hope that they would not subsequently develop the plague. All that prayer apparently worked, judging by how quickly the plague of 590 AD diminished.
I guess that doesn’t motivate me to adopt the practice. However, the alternative of just ignoring people seems socially unacceptable. So my dilemma remains. Maybe some of you can respond in the Comments section with some appropriate solution.