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Question: What is an appropriate English response to reply when someone nearby sneezes?

Background: I am American by birth, and was raised to respond 'God Bless You' when someone sneezes -- though I often shorten this to simply 'Bless You'. Once, while on Wall Street as a consultant, I replied 'Bless You' and my boss turned to me & said "they don't say that here." At the time I was a bit taken aback, but now as a graduate student, surrounded by non-native English speakers, I can appreciate the contextual / cultural subtlety of my response -- (e.g. this question/responses ).

Being German by heritage, "gesundheit" works, but requires a multilingual explanation to my colleagues. I have tried to switch to 'Good Health', but I find this so awkward that it often stumbles out as 'God Health'... Shortening this to 'Health' feels equally clunky.

So... Language Experts! What are your thoughts? What is a reasonable, English, response to reply when someone sneezes?

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I fail to see anything culturally incorrect about "bless you" (or "bleshoo", as it usually comes out). Blessing is not an activity reserved to deities. –  Marthaª Jun 24 '11 at 4:16
    
@Martha, I only attribute it to 'culture' as, in my minimal international travel, I haven't encountered the phrase much (even while in English speaking countries). –  M. Tibbits Jun 24 '11 at 4:19
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I believe your boss actually meant "you don't say anything at all". If you really want to know, just pick up one one the proposals below. For instance, next time he sneezes say: "You're sooooooo good lookin!". Also, please report his reaction here. Seriously, in many managerial circles, geared toward merit and efficiency, sneezes are just ignored. Can you picture the chairman of a board meeting sneezing and everybody greeting that event with a resounding "Bless you!". Doesn't seem right does it? –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 24 '11 at 5:44
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4 Answers

Both the German gesundheit and the Yiddish zay gezunt (phonetical English transliteration; in Yiddish it would be rendered "זײַ געזונט") have made significant inroads into English. You are more likely to hear the Yiddish in places that had a significant Ashkenazi immigrant population (particularly certain areas of New York City), but both are more-or-less English now (or at least regionalisms). I grew up in a Northern Ontario mining town of about 2000 people with a population that was about evenly split between relatively recent English immigrants and French Canadians who'd lived there for three hundred years or more (with a couple of dozen Italian families and a similar number of Finns) and I was as likely to hear "gesundheit" as "bless you".

I am not aware of any native English sneeze response other that a variation on the "bless you" theme. Well, other than will you cover up when you do that or blow your nose. The old response came from the idea that the soul had temporarily been expelled, and you needed protection until it found its way back. In the time since that superstition died, our attitude toward people spraying germs around the place has become rather less charitable, so it's not surprising that no-one has decided to come up with a "good job" sort of thing in its stead. And I think that our own health has become a greater concern than the sneezer's.

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Salient final point. –  Callithumpian Jun 24 '11 at 4:36
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+1, nice answer. Also note that the German transliteration for yiddish "זײַ געזונט" would be spelled "Sei gesund", which is perfect German for "Be healthy". –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 24 '11 at 5:58
    
I was under the impression "God bless you" as a response to sneezing was an attempt at praying for protection against plague; with sneezing being an early symptom (or thought to be) –  Pavling Jun 24 '11 at 11:29
    
In Yiddish there is also a series of responses to serial sneezes, up to three, rather like a toast. For the first sneeze, one says /tsu gezunt/ (‏צו געזונט) 'to health'; for the second, /tsu leybn/ (‏צו לײבן) 'to life'; after the third one says, /a kale tsu zayn/ (‏אַ כּלה צו זײַן) 'to be a bride' (there may be a different thing one says to male sneezers, but our informant was female). –  John Lawler Jul 24 '13 at 20:11
    
@AlainPannetierΦ Yes, but would "Sei gesund" be a wish (for the health of the sneezer) or a command (to protect our own health against additional sneezes)? –  Andreas Blass Jul 25 '13 at 4:15
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Among friends, a jokey "good one!" is a common response to a loud sneeze.

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I like it! (But haven't heard it.) –  GEdgar Jul 24 '13 at 20:56
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I don't usually say anything when someone sneezes, as I am not in the habit of blessing people for their bodily functions. However, there are times when I might say, “Get any on ya?” Most people don't get it, though. It bugs me when someone either stares at me or says, “Well … ?” after they sneeze as if I'm obligated to say something. Once when that happened I simply said, “Congratulations!”

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If you are among Seinfeld fans, the only appropriate response is "You are so good looking!"

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