Where Did The Word “Achoo” Come From? Why Do We Say “Bless You”?

When someone sneezes, we often use the word achoo to describe the sound. Every time we hear an achoo, we are often compelled to answer with a Bless you or God bless you. But why? Where did the word achoo come from, and why do we feel the need to bless someone whenever we hear a sneeze?

Where did achoo come from?

This instance of onomatopoeia imitates the sound of sneezing. The first syllable mimics the quick intake of breath, while the second corresponds with the tone of the convulsive expulsion of air through the nose and mouth. Achoo is also considered an interjection, in the same class of words as ouch or gosh.

Other languages follow the same approach. A sneeze sound in Russian can be apchkhi; in Korean, achee.

In the medical world, ACHOO is an acronym for a sternutation disorder called Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst Syndrome that results in uncontrollable sneezing.

A sneeze by any other name is still a sneeze, even if you call it a sternutation. Learn more other fancy words for bodily functions here.

Why do we say God bless you?

Quick summary

It is unknown exactly why we say Bless you in response to a sneeze. There are many theories, and some believe it started as a practice to ward off demons and spirits or to bless someone with good health. It is likely that the Bless you response has remained commonplace because of its connection to good manners.

After a sneeze, there are a few common responses. God bless you (or Bless you) and Gesundheit are two. Gesundheit is German for “healthiness.”

The tradition of blessing someone after a sneeze is so old that even the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote about it in Natural History (77 CE) and puzzled over its origins. While we don’t know exactly why people feel the need to bless someone after a sneeze, there are several theories.

Two common theories have to do with demons and spirits. It was once believed that the soul temporarily left the body during a sneeze, leaving it vulnerable to the clutches of Satan. The blessing was intended to keep the devil away from the sneezer’s soul. According to another theory, a person sneezed to expel evil spirits from their body, and the blessing was given to prevent them from going right back in. 

Some theories relate to medical explanations. During the Renaissance era, it was believed a sneeze caused the heart to momentarily stop. The blessing was a brief prayer that the heart would not fail completely. Alternatively, it was once thought that sneezing was a sign of the plague. Because relying on medical science was often not an option then, only a blessing from God could save someone from their fate. 

Yet another theory suggests that a sneeze was a sign that God was blessing someone with good fortune. The Bless you acknowledged the person’s fortune while thanking God and reinforcing a person’s good luck. One last theory posits that people thought the sneeze itself was a blessing that passed good fortune onto others, and people would politely return a Bless you as a show of good manners.

Regardless of which, if any, of these theories are right, the phrase Bless you is associated with good manners and politeness today. It seems likely that this link between Bless you and proper manners is what has made it so ubiquitous, as most people want to demonstrate they can be polite. 

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What are some alternatives to Bless you?

If you’re not a fan of Bless you, what should you say? In some countries, people tend to ignore sneezes (China and Japan, for example), but in most, there is some expectation of a response. To say these vary quite a bit is an understatement. 

If you’re looking for an alternative to Bless you, we humbly propose one of these:

Health (or recover)

Since Gesundheit means “healthiness,” why not use the English word as a substitute? (You’ll never struggle to spell it.) The Dutch, Armenians, Greeks, Ukrainians, and many others use a version of their own word for health to acknowledge a sneeze. You might try salud (Spanish) or noroc (Romanian) to give your blessing a bit of flair. To your health and recover also have nice rings to them.

Live long

Again, there are multiple variations of this one, some longer than others. (One Telugu phrase offered up after a sneeze translates to “May you be blessed with a life without death.”) 

It’s the truth

The Czech, Slovenian, and Marathi languages use a phrase that translates to “it is true/truth,” while the Polish and Croatian languages use “truth” due to a superstition that sneezing means something the sneezer said is true.

You shall grow tall

This is the translation of the German Großwachsen. For a child, you might use May you grow up (as they do in Romania). 

Go away, kitten

This one might be the most creative of the responses. Serbians use this phrase with children for the most part, as a sneeze supposedly sounds like a cat’s cough. Hmm. We can’t say we disagree. (But how many cat videos should we watch to be sure? All the videos, right?)

Are you all right?

After multiple sneezes, maybe you should simply pose a polite question. In Japan, sneezes are seldom noted, but they might inquire about someone’s health after a particularly noisy sneezing fit.

There's a medical term for the silliest of bodily functions—even burping. Learn it here!

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