When I was younger, I thought people said “bless you” after someone sneezes because your heart momentarily stops with each “achoo.” I don’t know who told me that tale, but it stuck with me. And, it turns out it was wrong.
The origin of bestowing a verbal blessing on someone after they sneeze can be traced to the 6th Century Pope Gregory the Great who said it to protect people against the bubonic plague racing across Europe at that time. Others say the origin of expressing “good wishes” after someone sneezes stems from the Ancient Greek and Roman practice of looking at sneezing as a sign of well-being, so one would wish “Jupiter preserve you.”
Now, many centuries later, people across the world wish people well after they sneeze by saying “to your health” and “bless you” – among other responses. And, they do so in all different languages.
Here are some ways people respond to sneezes around the world:
“To your health!”
In German, people say “gesundheit” which means “health.” As a person of German descent, I recall “gesundheit” being the common “blessing” when someone sneezed in my home – and it’s what I use with own family today.
According to Flor of Little Nomadas, in Spanish it’s also common for people to wish you good health when you sneeze. That’s why the Venezuelan-American mom of three says Spanish-speaking people say “Salud” when someone sneezes.
Chontelle of Bilingual Kid Spot shared that in Italian people say “salute” which means “to your health.” But, it isn’t very formal. So, if you really want to be polite, you wouldn't say anything at all when someone sneezes – and may even wait for them to say “sorry” or “excuse me” instead. Ute of Expat Since Birth said the same formal approach is followed by German, Dutch and Swissgerman speakers.
Similarly, in Swedish, people say “prosit,” which Rita of Multilingual Parenting shares is short for the Latin phrase “pro sit tibi” or “may it be good for you.” Rita also shared that Finnish speakers say “terveydeksi” which means for your heath. And, Ute also shared that in Swissgerman you say “Gsunheit,” which means “health.”
Olga of The European Mama shared that in Polish people wish you “Na zdrowie” which means “to your health.” While in Russian, people say “Будь Здоров” which means “be healthy” – as shared by Varya of Creative World of Varya. And, over in Latvia, people say “uz veselibu” or “to your health” according to Ilze of Let the Journey Begin.
In Dutch, people will often say “gezonheid” when someone sneezes once or even twice. But, when someone sneezes three times, Dutch people will often say “morgen mooi weer,” which means “the weather will be nice tomorrow.”
According to Elika of ElikaMahony.com, in China, people often say “yi bai sui,” which means “100 years!”
According to Annabelle of The Piri-Piri Lexicon, Portuguese speakers say “sentinho” when someone sneezes, which means “bless.”
According to Chontelle of Bilingual Kid Spot, people in Australia say “bless you” – similar to what you most commonly hear in other English-speaking countries like the U.S. and the UK.
Charu of Ketchup Moms shared that people in India now say “bless you.” But, growing up, her grandmother would wish her, “Jai Mata Di” which means “God is great” in Hindi.
According to Tamania of Urdu Mom, people in Pakistan speak Urdu, a language that has adapted some Arabic words – including “Alhamdulilah” which means “bless you.” Ayesha of Jeddah Mom shared that the same response is used in Saudi Arabia – and Indian Muslims say it, too. But, in general, Muslims say “alhamdulilah” when someone sneezes as a way to wish someone good health. And, Souad of Babelkid shared that the same response is used in Algeria – and people respond with “yarhamuka Allah,” which means “god bless you.”
But, of course, there are other responses, too.
In French, it pays to count someone’s sneezes. As shared by Annabelle of The Piri-Piri Lexicon and Virginie of Travel with My Kids, people say “a tes/vos souhaits” or “to your wishes” when someone sneezes. But, sometimes people also say “a tes/vos amours” or “to your loves” after the second sneeze and then “qu’elles durent toujours” or “that they last forever” after the third sneeze.
In Japan, when someone sneezes, it’s thought to mean that someone is speaking well of you (sort of like the American notion that your nose itches when someone is talking about you). But, you probably won’t hear anyone say something to you after you do. That’s because in many East Asian cultures, people do not follow the same practice of responding to another person when they sneeze. According to Melissa of Melibelle in Tokyo, it’s usually the person who sneezes that says something – but only “sumimasen” or “excuse me.”
Responses in the U.S. - Wishing well to total strangers
Of course, here in the U.S., it's easy to hear a mixture of responses - which is a reflection of the many languages spoken here.
For me, I enjoy hearing people saying "bless you" or "gesundheit" to anyone who sneezes – even total strangers on the street, on the subway, in stores or in restaurants. While we may not always say “hello” or even smile at those same people, we’ll often stop and share a polite response when someone – anyone – sneezes. Which, to me, is the greatest blessing of it all.
What do you say when someone sneezes? And, what does it mean? Do you always feel the need to respond when you hear "achoo?" Share your stories in the comments below.