Why do we say “God bless you” when people sneeze? Last I heard, it’s because our hearts stop for a second when we sneeze and it’s an act of God that our hearts continue to beat.
— “Holdin’ it in,” via email
The “heart stopping” explanation for blessing someone’s sneeze is popular, but it’s a latecomer to the sneezing game. Pliny the Elder mentions “saluting” a sneeze during the glory days of Rome, at which point in history medical science wasn’t advanced enough to link a fictitious heart murmur with an explosive gust of wind to dust out the nasal cavity. It’s likely that blessing the sneeze started as a precautionary measure designed to ward off evil spirits that might accompany an event which was poorly understood at the time. Since nobody really knew what a sneeze was, there was no harm in putting a small blessing on the sneezer just in case some sneaky little devils were hanging around waiting to cause mischief. Over the years, it’s become nothing more than a routine gesture of politeness.
“Bless,” is itself an interesting word. It comes from the Old English bloédsian, which implied sanctification by anointing a thing in blood. For much of pre-Christian Europe, bathing something in sacrificial blood was the best and only way to render it sacrosanct in the eyes of whatever pagan god (small “g”) happened to be watching. The “civilized,” Latin word benedicere implies a benediction, or more of a verbal blessing, but we like the bloody version better. The Latin use gives us the ability to simply speak a blessing, but saying “bless you” when someone sneezes carries echoes of “may you be bathed in blood!”