Dear Lily June,
When you were in the womb, I sometimes felt what I called the “wet dog.” Though I couldn’t make out what you were doing, it was a spastic wiggling I felt in my insides, something like when a long-haired pooch gets caught in a downpour and then shimmies and shakes his body to knock the wet drops off in far-flinging spirals. Seeing you now from the outside, I know exactly what you were doing. Apparently, that’s how you sneeze.
As you practice the skill of forcibly expelling air through your nostril cavities while simultaneously launching all four of your limbs into opposite directions–making you look like a starfish with Parkinson’s–I practice the etiquette I never even contemplated (or participated in) much before. I say, “Bless you, Lily.” Sometimes, I say it with such volume and excitement that you give a second start, flinging your hands and feet to their four corners and looking like, for just an instant, you were doing jumping jacks and someone hit “pause” on the Lily remote. Then you give me some vague semblance of a grin (or is it a grimace?), and we move on with our day.
I don’t have an exact counter running, but I’d bet you dollars to donuts that this happens at least a dozen times a week. You sneeze, startle, receive your over-optimistic blessing, startle, then smile. It’s quickly becoming our most frequent tradition and our longest running conversation, and in the interest of leaving no stone unturned with your letters, it got me thinking, Why do I “bless you” each time? What does that even mean, coming from your fairly agnostic mommy? Is it just a learned behavior for me? And if so, at what point am I supposed to start teaching you sneezing etiquette of your own? How about now?
Why Do We Sneeze?
The purpose of a sneeze–or sternutation to get fancy on you–is to propel foreign particles that irritate the mucous membranes from the nasal cavity. As in all aspects of the human body, what goes in must come out (the charming way our pediatrician tried to calm us about how much poo you were producing). So if you ever find yourself in an old attic snorting dust, you’ll find yourself shooting those particles back into the world at a speed of at least 35 miles per hour. That’s faster than a car plugging through a school zone, kiddo.
Of course, that doesn’t explain why some people sneeze at the sight of bright lights (maybe a Gizmo/mogwai thing?) or a sudden drop in temperature or even a particularly full stomach. But then, I’m just a secretary, Lily. I’m not a sneezologist.
Nor am I a linguist, so I have no idea how the following cultures came up with such different onomatopoeia (sound words) for what they hear when someone sneezes:
- Your Grandpa Derrick–“ah-[insert sonic blast]”
This is all especially interesting to me in light of the fact that the deaf, when they sneeze, apparently don’t make a peep.
So Why Do We Feel the Need to Bless the Occasion?
While research was, like a nostril post-blast, fairly clear on the what’s and why’s of a sneeze itself, it left things a lot foggier when it comes to why English-speaking countries have the custom of replying “[God] Bless You,” as a response to the bodily process. Whether the following superstitions/theories actually explain the behavior or were urban legends created after the fact remains unconfirmed, as far as I could tell, by any credible historian. However, some claim that people used to believe any or all of the following:
- Sneeze demons would crawl up into the nose caverns of your face to wreak havoc on your nasal passages and/or soul. “Bless you” pacified the demons from feeding on your nose hairs and worked like a mini-exorcism (a la “The power of Christ compels your nose!”).
- A sneeze, in addition to expelling foreign particles, used to shoot your soul straight out of your body. “Bless you” warded off the “evil spirits” planning to kidnap said separated soul with the promise of a lollipop hidden in an unmarked van.
- You sneeze not dust, but sins. The blesser used the blessing like Ebola doctors get hazmatted to the nines in their PPE suits. They didn’t want to catch your contagious wickedness.
- Sneezes were too powerful for your puny heart muscle, which would stop beating to allow the blast proper escape time. The bless-ee received the blessing to serve as a cheap, conversational defibrillator.
- Because the Black Plague caused many to have to “bring out [their] dead,” a blessing was used as a preventive measure against the sniffles going full-on Bubonic.
I swear to you, Lily, I’m only slightly exaggerating these honest-to-goodness etymological myths for where “Bless you” comes from.
Possibly with similar motivations, I’ve read (but this could be wrong) that other cultures use the following:
- In Muslim countries, after a person sneezes, they often say an Arabic phrase meaning “Praise to God”.
- Indian cultures often respond with “Krishna,” similar to a blessing in western cultures.
In truth, I say “Bless you” because I’ve heard others say it. I’m not usually that much of a lemming, but it seemed harmless enough until I considered that I might not have a religious right to the term. (Though, as in the weird case of Kendra Turner, a seventeen-year-old punished by her teacher for saying it, I don’t think anyone should be prohibited from the use of “Bless you,” either.)
Is There a Secular Sneeze Etiquette Alternative?
When I used to ask my mother, your Grandma Raelyn, who had been raised as an Independent Fundamental Baptist herself, had played in famous televangelist Pat Robertson’s basement, and had gone to a church that handled snakes (all true!) if she believed in God, her answer was infuriatingly vague. “I believe in the possibility of a God,” she would say. I believed in the possibility of hedging, until I learned the word “agnosticism.”
From what I understand, people lump “atheists” and “agnostics” into the same boat, but they’re riding very different currents. Atheists don’t believe in a God at all; Agnostics, on other hand, don’t believe in blind belief. “Gnosis” is the Greek word for “knowledge,” but Agnostics believe that God and the nature of his/her existence are unknowable. They follow their reason up to the limits of its logic, and then they refuse to claim certainty about “truths” that can’t be proven.
In other words, the theists and gnostics fill that gap of what can’t be known with faith and morality. The atheists fill that gap of what can’t be known with reason and ethics and sometimes secular humanism. The agnostics point over the edge and stare into the gap’s gape. You have the right to choose which of these, if any, you believe to be the most valid approach. (Sidebar: This is some pretty serious subject matter to insert into a sneeze post, huh Lily?)
So when I think about saying “Bless You,” it feels like a shaky truce with a God of whose absolute existence I’m not entirely certain. What I am certain of is that there’s nothing to lose in a kind gesture, especially towards someone who may be about to enter a coughing, sniffing, sleepless struggle. And I certainly don’t want to go hugging the sneezers anytime soon. Other countries simply wish the nose-trumpeter various iterations of “good health”:
- In Germany, they say Gesundheit (oft adopted in American culture) which translates to “health”. In Iran, it’s common to respond with a Persian phrase meaning the same.
- In Turkey, after a person sneezes, it is proper to say “Çok yasa” which means “Live long.” Telugu’s “chiranjeeva sataish” means “may you live long,” and Tamil’s “Dheergaiyish” means the same.
It feels strange to my American tongue, so bred on disingenuous irony, though, to shout “health” or “long life” to someone who’s clearly demonstrating a symptom of being unwell. As we say to someone who’s done something stupid, “Smart move, Einstein,” I’d fear the sneezer would think I was mocking them. Or worse, they might think I was barking orders at them (like screaming into the face of someone having a panic attack, “Relax!”)
Jerry Seinfeld, an American comedian, said on “The Good Samaritan” episode of his 1990’s sitcom,
“If you want to make a person feel better after they sneeze, you shouldn’t say ‘God bless you.’ You should say ‘You’re so good looking!’”
But I’m afraid that, as I work in a public academic setting, that’s a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen. In the end, I’m tempted to just opt for Gesundheit anyway, seeing as it’s polite and well-intentioned and, like “Bless you,” many Americans probably don’t know what it means or where it comes from anyway. What do you think, Lily? What will you say, when you learn to talk about sneezes (a lesson I’m hoping is pretty far down the priority ladder)?
In the meantime, maybe I will just keep saying “Bless you.” It’s dangerous to go barking too far up the secular language tree, or you’ll rule out a lot of other popular expressions. I only learned in researching this topic, for instance, that “Goodbye” is actually a contraction of “God be with you.” I’ve been saying that expression for almost thirty years. I never knew.
What Should You Do as the Sneezer and Not the Sneezee?
At least when it comes to what to do on the opposite end of the issue–if I’m the one firing snot rockets into the atmosphere–I’m all kinds of knowledgeable.
- I can’t say this enough, Lily. Cover your face! That goes for a cough or a sneeze or a burp or basically anything that comes out of your face and sends your germs spiraling into the universe like the beads of water shaken off the wet dog from the beginning of this letter.
- They say the best way to cover your face is not with your hand or a handkerchief (as you’re likely to spread more germs that way–at least if you intend to use those hands to, you know, touch stuff). Instead, use your arm. Think of a vampire throwing a cape up to cover his visage, and that’s the move you should bust.
- When you can, wash your hands. At least before you use them for all that touching they’ve grown so fond of.
- Aim it away from the general public. If you’re in a large space–like a meadow–run the other way amongst the daisies before dropping your nose bomb. If you’re in a confined space–like an elevator–at least look down towards your feet. Your tennis shoes will take more grimy and germy punishment in a day than from some expelled sneeze spittle, so aim low, my darling dear, and still, cover your face!
- Aim it away from your mother. I can only imagine the nightmarish nausea I’ll experience if your sneeze particles were to land, somehow, in my mouth. Your dad’s fair game, though, kiddo. His sleeves are way bigger than mine. (Just kidding! Psst, Lily: He reads these letters sometimes.)
When it comes to how to handle the rules of the sneezing game–as with most questions of etiquette–follow your heart. Or, like the Fruit Loops mascot Toucan Sam used to say,
“Follow your nose.”
Hopefully, neither will lead you astray.
- “Sneeze” by James Gathany – CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sneeze.JPG#/media/File:Sneeze.JPG
- “Schongauer Anthony” by Martin Schongauer – http://www.abcgallery.com/S/schongauer/schongauer12.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schongauer_Anthony.jpg#/media/File:Schongauer_Anthony.jpg
- “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases Art.IWMPST14133” by Central Council for Health Education (publisher/sponsor), Unknown (artist), Ministry of Health (publisher/sponsor), J Howitt and Son Ltd, Nottingham (printer), Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (publisher/sponsor) – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//156/media-156489/large.jpgThis is photograph Art.IWM PST 14133 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coughs_and_Sneezes_Spread_Diseases_Art.IWMPST14133.jpg#/media/File:Coughs_and_Sneezes_Spread_Diseases_Art.IWMPST14133.jpg
- “Count von Count kneeling” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Count_von_Count_kneeling.png#/media/File:Count_von_Count_kneeling.png