Ah, the sneeze. That bodily function that drives particles out of the nose and mouth in a decidedly forcible way.
It’s sometimes unpleasant, especially if you sneeze a bunch of times in a row (my record is nine), and sometimes sneezing brings a sense of relief as you finally get the sneeze out of your system.
Some sneezes are loud, some are small, but almost all of them accompanied by something else: Someone saying “Bless you,” or some variation on that. For some, the response is nearly automatic, the courteous thing to do. For others, it’s nothing to acknowledge, just a minor break in the conversation. (For the people around me, they normally wait until I’m done sneezing to say anything, and it’s normally preceded by “Are you done yet?”)
Many cultures have some variation on “Bless you,” and like the range of sneezes that exist, there’s a range of differences in the response. Most are wishes of good health following the sneeze, but some are a little odd and involve kittens or the weather.
Why we say ‘bless you’
The common reason why people in the West say, “Bless you,” basically boils down to a desire to protect them, after a fashion. Whether it’s simply wishing them good health or wishing for divine protection so their soul doesn’t escape during the sneeze — a common concern — or so that an evil spirit wouldn’t re-enter after the sneeze, we’ve been uttering a response to sneezes for centuries. (And as the video above proves, the sound for a sneeze doesn’t change that much across cultures.)
Indeed, responding to sneezes is a tradition that merited mention as early as 77 A.D., according to Snopes. However, the practice was common enough even by then that, apparently, no one knows why we started saying it in the first place. Regardless, the practice seemed motivated, both in words and in lore, to protect the sneezer in some fashion, whether it be offering up divine mercy or warding away evil spirits.
Of course, today the phrase is simply uttered as a matter of course and politeness. Some might say that not saying it borders on rudeness at this point, which may be worse than demons getting back into the someone’s body.
Different ways to respond to sneezes
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) sneezes during a 2013 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Many eastern and southeastern Asian cultures, including Japan, don’t have a tradition of responding to a sneeze. (Photo: Koji Sasahara/AFP/Getty Images)
Like the reasons behind offering a vocal acknowledgement of a sneeze vary, so too do the ways in which people reply to them. Most maintain a connection to divine well-being or general health, regardless of their language or culture. A few countries, including China, Japan and Korea, don’t have traditions of responding to sneezes, though the sneezer is expected to apologize or excuse themselves for sneezing.
1. Finnish. If you’re sneezing in Finland, expect to hear “Terveydeksi!” once your sneeze is complete. It means “To your health!” or “God bless you!”
2. Amharic. One of the languages spoken in Ethiopia, Amharic offers responses based on the sneezer’s sex: ይማርሽ (yimarish) for females or ይማርህ (yimarih) for males. Either way, the translation is, “God forgive you.” Like in Turkey, the proper response is wishing the responder a long life.
3. German. “Gesundheit!” is perhaps the most common alternative to “Bless you!” among English speakers, according to Babbel Magazine. It’s widespread enough that people recognize it as a response to sneezes without looking quizzically at the speaker. The word translates as “Health!,” giving the sneezer a wish of well-being. If a child sneezes a few times too many, a German speaker may reply with “Großwachsen!,” which translates as “You will grow tall!”
4. Dutch. Sneezers in the Netherlands hear “Gezondheid!” or “Proost!” Those familiar with Germanic languages will quickly recognize words that mean “Health!” and “Cheers!” in German. If someone sneezers more than three times, however, they are jokingly granted control over the weather with “Morgen mooi weer!” It means “We’ll have good weather tomorrow!” Apparently, sneezing enough forces away storms. If only.
A young boy sneezes as he lines up to take part in the opening parade of the Etnospor Cultural Festival in May 2018 in Istanbul. May he live a long and healthy life! (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
5. Turkish. Some responses to sneezes don’t stop with just wishing people good health. In Turkey, sneezers are greeted with “Çok yaşa” after the first sneeze and “Sağlıklı yaşa” after the second. The two phrases together translate as “Live long, live healthy.” Sneezers should reply with some version of “And may you live to see it!” Babbel acknowledges that the reply sounds “snarky,” but it’s intended to be a sincere statement.
6. Serbian. German isn’t the only language with a special phrase for sneezey kids. Serbs will say “Pis maco!” to children after they sneeze. It translates, adorably, as “Go away, kitten!” The sneezes of children, after all, can sound like a kitten’s sneeze or cough. If an adult sneezes, the proper response is “Наздравље,” which means “Bless you.”
7. Sinhala. Spoken by the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese people say, “ආයුබෝවන් (Ayubowan)” in reply to a sneeze. The phrase wishes a long life on the sneezer.
How to respond to a sneeze around the world
People around the world wish a person well after they sneeze, but we don’t really know why.