‘God bless you’ is the ubiquitous phrase used to wish another blessings in a variety of contexts: as a parting phrase, as a valediction, and especially after a sneeze.
“The LORD bless you and keep you!” – Numbers 6:24
The phrase is also seen in the Bible (above) and was used by early Catholics in the beginning days of the Church as a benediction and as a way to bid a person Godspeed (Godspeed itself coming from a contraction of the Middle English God + spede, meaning to prosper).
How did the phrase become associated with sneezing?
According to pious tradition, the origin of the association comes when a disastrous plague not unlike our current coronavirus pandemic was sweeping through medieval Europe.
During the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I decreed the Faithful pray unceasingly for divine intercession. Part of his decree was that anyone who sneezed be blessed immediately.
Sneezing was often the first sign of someone falling ill with the plague.
By 750 AD, just over 150 years later, saying ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezed was commonplace in all of Christendom – a tradition that still exists today because of a plague nearly 1500 years ago.