The Course of Reason

Gesundheit? Blesh You? Or Nothing?

March 20, 2013

For my entire life out of habit, when someone in the same room as me sneezed, I always said "Blesh you." Not "bless you." Not "God bless you." It was a weird, nonexistent word that evolved from the word "bless." Since I always did this for others, I actually thought it was rude if nobody said anything to me after I sneezed. I am not sure why. I can't imagine it made me angry that I wasn't worthy of being blessed in the eyes of my peers. I guess it was more of a politeness issue than anything else.

Despite having been an atheist my entire life, I never really considered this until recent years. I now oddly feel like a hypocrite if I say "blesh you" when the person sitting next to me sneezes, but then I feel rude if I don't say anything and just ignore it.

The history of saying something after a person sneezes is believed to go back centuries. The conventional wisdom is that people used to believe that sneezing was the body's effort to force out the Devil or evil spirits. In these cases, "bless you," "God bless you," or any other sort of related phrase was used as a sort of shield against evil.

Obviously, many of us, atheist or not, don't believe in such stories. We now know, thanks to medical research, that our body produces a sneeze to remove invasive particles that are within our nostrils, such as excess dust, pollen, pepper, you name it. Even Christians know this.

So why do we still say this? And what are we, as nonreligious folks, supposed to do, if anything? In my mind, since no one seems to actually believe that someone needs to be blessed after sneezing, it is truly just a sociological politeness and therefore OK to say "bless you" or "blesh you." However, my secular-obsessed mind sometimes has an issue with conforming to this.

Most atheists I talk to feel that the compromise is to just say the other common acceptable phrase, "Gesundheit." I agree with this, but sometimes I feel that this is more commonly used for close friends or acquaintances, and not really strangers. Perhaps that is just my personality.

So I ask my fellow secular peers: What do you say when someone sneezes? Has the issue ever been raised to you that saying "bless you" is borderline hypocritical?

I encourage you, if you have not already, to watch this famous Dane Cook skit on what to say to an atheist when they sneeze. I somewhat agree with his feelings on saying "Gesundheit!" Be warned, there is profanity and inappropriate language so do not watch if that offends you.


About the Author: Julie Mankowski

Julie Mankowski's photo
Julie Mankowski is the president and founder of the George Washington University Secular Society.


#1 Daniel (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 11:37am

From what I've seen, Dane Cook seems to be a total douchebag. I guess that's why I'm not surprised about hearing yet another racist joke about Germans. The Nazis and the Holocaust were both an incredibly horrible, but that doesn't justify the racist jokes that we Germans continue to face 60 years later. I'll be damned(haha) if I'm going to care that Dane Cook conflates using the German language with honoring Hitler. I would expect rationality from CFI, so I'm confused why the author would "somewhat agree with his feelings" on this subject. Cook is an idiot, and I'll continue to say "Gesundheit" when someone sneezes.

#2 L. Graykin (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 11:46am

I tend to say "bless you" when distracted, more out of habit than anything else (though I like "blesh"). But if the situation is right, I'll ask a question indicating interest/concern: "Oh, are you coming down with something?" or make a statement: "I wish you health."

#3 Dan (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 12:01pm

From Penn Jillette's book God, No!:

"When someone sneezes we say 'That's funny,' because it is."

I always liked that one.

#4 indyactivist (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 12:07pm

Nothing. I wasn't raised to do it in my liberal christian home. If you aren't raised to it it is impossible to see the point of it. Stupidiest. Custom. Ever.

#5 Leila (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 12:50pm

I don't say anything when somebody sneezes. I really don't see the point, and I'm surprised to hear that some people think it's rude not to say anything.

#6 DebGod on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 1:39pm

I've been an atheist for a long time, so I tried silence or "Gesundheit" when a teen. In Japanese class in college, though, I had to learn not to say anything, and it stuck. Now I even ask my roommates not to say things if I sneeze (something they have a hard time with).

However, when I was in job interviews, or around other people's parents, I would *always* say something, 'cuz that's how propriety works. :)

#7 Marc David Barnhill on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 3:01pm

I say "bless you." If the phrase ever had any supernatural connotations for me, even when I was a theist, they had vaguely to do with evil demons or bad luck (neither of which I believed in), not with the god I believed in. I consider it a social nicety to acknowledge out of custom that someone has sneezed and that I'm concerned for their health. They may take my usage to have theological implications, but they're equally free to do so when I say "Goodbye" ("God be with ye") on parting from them -- a usage I have yet to see many secularists raising concerns about.

#8 Jessica (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 5:32pm

Dane Cook is an idiot. Every jewish person I know says gesunt or gesundheit. Yiddish is full of german words, and the Ashkenazi immigrants are probably the reason that those expressions are known by non-jewish Americans . . . not because of nazis. I also think gesundheit is a good option for atheists because you are just wishing for someone to have good health (which is more empathetic than saying nothing).

#9 Old Muley (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 7:03pm

My wife and I worked in a group home for developmentally disabled adults when we were first married. One of the residence had a funny response when someone would sneeze. He'd say "three, four, three, four, sneeze your damn head off". We thought it was funny so we adopted that phrase as our own. Of course we only use it with each other.

#10 Michael (Guest) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 7:36pm

Out of habit, I continued to say "bless you" for many years after deconverting to atheism. Now I don't say anything. I know coworkers are likely to say "bless you" so I try to say "Excuse me!" before they have a chance to say anything. I have noticed that the bless-you's have decreased at work, and not just around me.

#11 doncopler on Wednesday March 20, 2013 at 11:07pm

Living in the Southwest, I just say "Salud," which I believe is the Spanish equivalent of "health," i.e. wishing someone good health. All my Hispanic friends appreciate it, and the Gringos don't seem to mind (most of them probably know a little Spanish as well.).

#12 slowe on Thursday March 21, 2013 at 6:10am

When I sneeze, I say 'excuse me' before any one can say "God Bless You". Cut them off at the pass.
Or if they say 'God bless you'. I proceed to ask them if they know where this saying comes from and why some say it. When they say NO, I take it as an invitation to tell them: In the Dark Ages or Middle Ages, people thought that when you sneezed your spirit or soul was sneezed out of your body and temporarily, and you were susceptible to demons, or bad spirits , which were floating around everywhere!, taking over your body, thus turning you into a demon. Saying 'God Bless you', chased them away while your real spirit/soul would get back inside you. !!! They laugh, of course. An hopefully will not do it again around me.

#13 FactWino (Guest) on Thursday March 21, 2013 at 7:46am

There's another thing done in Spanish that I like. For the first sneeze, you say "Salud", for the second, "Dinero", and the third, "Amor". I prefer health, love and then money.

#14 Tengri (Guest) on Wednesday January 04, 2017 at 5:00am

I believe the Christian custom of blessing someone when they sneeze (in fear of spirit possession) comes originally (due to a shared diaspora) from an old Egyptian custom where it was believed that the soul was exiting the body. Another custom like this is the use of Amen after prayer. The Ancient Egyptians used to say Amun after rituals and prayer (you are probably familiar with Amun-Ra, the old Egyptian god.) There are actually some Egyptologists in the fringes who believe that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all stem from the the cult of Heliopolis, and Akhenaten/Nefertiti's worship of the Aten, or deified solar disk, since Atenism outdates Judaism/Christianity/Islam by quite a bit. But there are also some who believe the same thing about a migration from Persia in terms of Zoroastrianism/Mithraism. In any case, who knows. Nothing on this has been proven in a sufficiently definitive manner to convince the majority yet, so like many other things, it remains a mystery. I think it's good to have a healthy sense of wonder about most things, while investigating them. Isn't that the nature of the inquisitive mind?




Guests may not post URLs. Registration is free and easy.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Enter the word that goes in the blank: CFI is short for "Center for _______"

Creative Commons License

The Course of Reason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

CFI blog entries can be copied or distributed freely, provided:

  • Credit is given to the Center for Inquiry and the individual blogger
  • Either the entire entry is reproduced or an excerpt that is considered fair use
  • The copying/distribution is for noncommercial purposes