Throughout the year, whether due to the change of seasons, pollen, or your kids bringing home a plague, we all get the sniffles, watery eyes, never-ending colds, coughs, aches, pains, and, of course, sneezes. Queue sneeze:
"Good health to you!"
I say this phrase without much thought or reservation; I’ve been using it for so long, no second thought is needed. Except for when I catch myself thinking about the phrase as I say it, then I say it with irony. Yet, it’s no more or less strange than the two common responses we have to the old familiar nose wind. The German phrase “gesundheit” (one of the aforementioned phrases) means the same thing in English.
People do occasionally balk at my response to their sneezes, however, but I’m not offended — more curious and ready to explain.
At a party a few years back, I enthusiastically uttered my trademark reply after such a gust of nostril air. Most party-goers didn’t skip a beat. Except for the person I was speaking with.
“Good health to you?” Incredulity lightly veiled and hardly hidden. A few other party goers looked my way.
“Yes,” I replied, “Just putting an English spin to the German response. Would you prefer I not say anything at all?”
“I’d prefer ‘gesundheit’ over ‘good health to you.' Do you have a problem with saying ‘bless you?'”
I shouldn’t have a problem with saying “bless you” to any and all sneezers since I’ve grown up with that response — culturally indoctrinated, as it were — like everyone else. But some latent pragmatism in me wished to do away with the phrase and use a more serviceable one. That and once upon a time I attempted to explain “bless you” to a school office full of Japanese teachers (where I was an ESL — English as a Second Language — teacher) and the impromptu English lesson that spiraled into confusion. I ditched the beloved sneeze response for something easier to explain: gesundheit — Englishized.
But first, a little context.
Repeat that sneeze but change the geography from the west to the far east:
“Bless you!” I respond to my surprised colleague.
“Ah!” the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) seated behind me exclaimed excitedly, “they do say it! Matt-o Sensei (sensei being a suffix always used with any authority figure in Japanese schools),” he continued, “why do you say ‘bless you’?”
Indeed. Why do we say “bless you” when someone sneezes?
As I began explaining the religious and superstitious origins of the phrase about spirits leaving the body — usually passed on to us from parents, grandparents, school teachers, pretty much everyone in America — I could see their eyes glazing over. They wanted an explanation but what I was saying was overly nuanced for the limited English fluency of my many gathered colleagues. Skipping ahead to the German definition, I told them that it basically means “good health to you," as in someone wishing you to be healthy.
The gathered teachers simultaneously exclaimed, “エエ (or, ‘Eeeeh!’ in English)…” — a cultural expression that indicates surprised understanding or amused disbelief. It told me that some of what I said, the paired down explanation, translated.
I was reinforced to this fact when at a work party a few weeks later, one of my coworkers shouted, “Good-o helusu to yu (I write this way to mimik Japanese syllables, not to mock)!” after someone sneezed. The table got a good laugh.
So did I.
My thought process on acceptable sneeze responses didn’t end with this small victory on the other side of the world. I decided that, for better or worse, I would keep using it upon returning to the States. Not out of some stubborn desire to be contrary or avant-garde. I’m none of those things. Instead, I felt this response, if I was going to use any response at all, made more sense. Since I’m neither superstitious nor religious, “bless you," although benign and culturally acceptable, just doesn’t fit with what response best suits me. I want to indicate that I hope someone continues on in good health, their metaphysical essences be damned.
Of course, in a nearly infinite universe it’s possible that a spirit could escape a body during a sneeze, or that one becomes prone to evil spirits — not everything in the Cosmos is understood. But, I have yet to see someone transform into a dead-eyed zombie after a sneeze, or rotate their head 360 degrees and spit pea soup. Sneezes, at least, are rooted in more mundane things — things related to physical health. Ergo, “Good health to you!”
If you like responding to sneezes and “bless you” fits the core of your being, however, go for it. I understand the cultural impetus even though it doesn’t do anything — just like saying “good health to you” doesn’t have the power to bestow good health on anyone. The gesture is still appreciated.
All I ask is that you don’t get angry with those who'd wish you good health. I mean, we aren’t sheep here, and everyone is entitled to be a little different. Embrace the diversity and be happy that someone bothered to say anything at all.