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Once upon a time I was hanging out with a fairly international group of people. Somebody sneezed, and one of the Americans reflexively responded, "Gesundheit!"

A German in the group seized on the opportunity to ask, "How do all Americans know this word?" Apparently he had been puzzled for quite some time by the number of Americans who know one, and only one, word of his native tongue. Some of them don't even know that it is a German word!

None of us could come up with a satisfactory answer.

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Surely "one, and only one" is an exaggeration. He must have run into kindergarten or rucksack, and perhaps even schadenfreude, wunderkind, zeitgeist, doppelganger... –  RegDwigнt Aug 25 '11 at 16:15
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Because people (especially the intelligentsia) were getting less comfortable with the God in [God] bless you and its religious undertones. –  Jimi Oke Aug 25 '11 at 16:16
    
To add to @RegDwight's list: Sturm und Drang, mensch, verboten... and on and on they go. While largely confined to the intelligentsia, the media have seized upon this trend, not just your New Yorker style content, but also in tech news. Read CNET or Wired and you'll see what I mean. –  Jimi Oke Aug 25 '11 at 16:21
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@RegDwight Ѭſ道♦ - I have never run into a doppelganger. –  oosterwal Aug 25 '11 at 17:07
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Personally I prefer "Gesundheit" to "God Bless you" because it satisfies the social mores regarding responding to a sneeze, and doesn't reference any religious traditions that may not be part of the sneezer's background. EDIT: Looks like Jimi said the same thing, so considerthis a confirmation. –  Codie CodeMonkey Aug 25 '11 at 20:36

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to etymonline.com:

gesundheit 1914, from Ger. Gesundheit, lit. "health!" Also in toast auf ihre Gesundheit "to your health" (see sound (adj.)). Lith. aciu, echoic of the sound of a sneeze, has come to mean "good luck, God bless you." See also God.

The United States has a large population of German immigrants and heritage speakers. Take that into consideration, along with the fact that a lot of Americans spent a lot of time fighting in two World Wars in Germany, and that many military personel are still stationed there.

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There may not be a better answer, but it's kind of unsatisfying, don't you think? I mean, those immigrants didn't just bring "gesundheit", they brought all of the German words with them. Why did "gesundheit" specifically become so popular? –  benzado Aug 25 '11 at 18:49
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If you can figure out why certain words are borrowed from areal languages, then you'll have a very promising career in linguistics! Unfortunately it's not an easy question to answer. –  Mark T Aug 25 '11 at 19:06
    
It's a shame we can't learn more without time travel. –  benzado Aug 25 '11 at 20:54

From Wikipedia:

In German, Gesundheit ([to your] "Health") is said after a sneeze. This is sometimes used in the United States. The expression arrived in America with early German immigrants, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and doubtless passed into local English usage in areas with substantial German-speaking populations.1 The expression is first widely attested in American English as of 1910, about the time when large numbers of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the United States.

Why Do We Say Gesundheit After Someone Has Sneezed?

Answering the question of why North Americans use ‘gesundheit’ post-sneeze also requires us to go back in time though not nearly as far as the days of Pope Gregory and the bubonic plague. The after sneeze use of ‘gesundheit’ can be attributed to German and Yiddish speaking immigrants entering the United States and other parts of North America in the early twentieth century. Like many phrases used prominently now in North American English gesundheit came from humble immigrant beginnings and is now used so often that the average speaker may not even know the translation etymology or literal meaning of what they’re saying when they utter this odd sounding German word. It’s interesting that the word is used so commonly now that there have been a few intervening generations since the wave of immigrants that brought ‘gesundheit’ to North America. It’s even more interesting to think that the origins of the use of ‘bless you’ to soothe someone who has sneezed are so dark. What will you say the next time someone sneezes?

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I believe two facts account for gesundheit's popularity in America:

  1. It doesn't mention God, which makes it more politically correct than the English alternative.
  2. It sounds kind of like a sneeze, especially if you exaggerate the stress on the middle syllable.

It doesn't hurt that — given the, uh, geometric nature of population mathematics — those large numbers of Yiddish- and German-speakers who "imported" the term in the first place have an even larger number of descendants, all still living in America.

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I often heard it used in a joking way, such as when someone says a long or hard to pronounce word. It's meant to make mild fun of German language, with lots of difficult to pronounce or unusual sounds (for Americans), such as Umlaute, sch, tz, ck etc.

The joke is, if it's not obvious by now, that the word to which one would reply with Gesundheit! supposedly sounds like someone sneezed instead of saying an actual word.

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Erm, sch, tz, and ck all repesent sounds that occur quite frequently in English, where the first two just happen to be spelt sh and ts (as in ‘nuts’ or ‘bits’). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 at 1:10

As a baby boomer, born in 1954, which in hindsight, wasn't that long after the war, I grew up with everyone around me saying "gesundheit." I could be wrong, but my theory is that American military personnel picked that up in the European theater and especially the occupation of Germany and brought it back with them to America.

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My grandfather, born in 1892, the son of the Spanish Consul in Biloxi, MS, and a devout Roman Catholic, used to bless anyone who sneezed with the phrase: "Gesundheit!". He died and went to Heaven a long time before the term political correctness was coined. He certainly had no qualms about the idea of offending anyone with his belief in God. I believe the concept would have been unthinkable to him. I believe he said gesundheit because be was so devout that he didn't want to use the name of God in a quotidian manner, thereby devaluing and making mundane a word he considered holy above all others. As a side note, about a dozen years ago I blessed our then au pair, a young woman born and raised in the former East Germany, after she had sneezed. Puzzled, she asked, "what does this word mean?" I answered that it was German for "God bless you". She responded that she's never heard the word and that it certainly wasn't German. Go figure.

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I would venture that your au pair’s inability to understand your gesundheit likely is mostly down to your accent being rather far from hers. Gesundheit is not a word you can grow up in any German-speaking area without knowing, just like health in English. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 at 1:05
    
Welcome to English Language & Usage @user100281. I don't see how this answers the question. –  andy256 Dec 7 at 3:39

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