This German word has been a part of the common American English lexicon for over a century. Literally translated as health (gesund) hood (heit), many of us, even those without German ancestry, have become accustomed to using the word rather than, or in addition to the phrase “Bless You” when someone sneezes.
My insomnia as of late (yay…), has allowed me to spend some time thinking and researching pretty random things … such as why in the world we’re compelled to verbally acknowledge a particular bodily function of another person in the first place. Perhaps, like me, Google and Wikipedia have become your late-night wingman, always ready and willing to answer the really important, burning questions that keep you up at night.
So, now, I feel compelled to share my findings with you, our readers, to kick off our first annual health issue that includes some heavy topics, with a little bit of fun. Come along with me…
It is believed that acknowledging the sneeze by wishing someone well is a practice that began a couple thousand years ago, as far back as AD 77, but perhaps even further than that. There is a very old folk belief that when a person sneezes, their soul could be thrown from their body, that the act opened up one’s body to the Devil or evil spirits, or conversely that the body was attempting to force out an invading evil presence with a sneeze. Um, yikes!
Further on down the road, 600 years or so later during the bubonic plague epidemic, Pope Gregory the Great commanded that any sneezing, which is generally the first sign that someone was falling ill with the plague, be immediately blessed (“God Bless You”) as part of his order for unceasing prayer for divine intercession. Because of this, by AD 750, it became customary to say “God Bless You” as a response to one sneezing.
Now this origin story of the social expectations surrounding the sneeze pertains to the western world. In some Asian cultures, like Korean and Japanese, responding to another person’s sneeze doesn’t exist. So, there’s that.
Another nugget of knowledge that I mustn’t forget to address, is the common misconception that your heart stops for a moment when you sneeze, making “Bless You” the polite thing to do to welcome the poor soul back to life. So, does your heart stop?
Survey says … kind of. Wait, what? What do the experts say?
Well, your heart doesn’t exactly stop. According to the Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Arkansas Medical School, the intrathoracic (in layman’s terms: the thin fluid-filled space between the two sacs that surround each lung) pressure in your body momentarily increases when you sneeze, which decreases the blood flow back to the heart. To momentarily adjust for this, the heart changes its regular heartbeat. Not to worry though, they state that the electrical activity of the heart does not cease during a sneeze.
That’s a relief!
As we head full steam ahead into cold and flu season, I hope you gained some insight into the weird social construct we’ve built around the sneeze. For you hard-core trivia players, I say, “you’re welcome”, and “Gesundheit!”
By: Candice E. Schlautmann for 82801