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I don't mean when someone sneezes or when someone's been kind to you, but in other situations.

Like, when someone is enjoying a lot of luck, fortune or doing staggeringly well in something.

Or when someone is wonderful at a task and you admire them at lot. So, you want to get to know them better through talking to them, either directly or via online messaging. However, they are often quite busy and you're hoping they have time for you, but they turn out not to have any. You can say: "(It's a pity, but) bless them."

Besides, is it the same meaning as "wish you good luck"?

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  • I'm not familiar with this behaviour; It might be specific to the region you live in, the dialect you speak, or the subculture you are a part of. If you could specify those, it would be helpful.
    – user867
    Jul 10, 2014 at 2:37
  • Oh, maybe this is just a UK thing? (where I am)
    – user76935
    Jul 10, 2014 at 2:41
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    I'm British and don't recognise most of those usages. "Bless him" and so on (sometimes shortened to just "bless") is usually expressing affection.
    – Rupe
    Jul 10, 2014 at 10:09
  • Maybe it's a younger generation thing or just because of the area...
    – user76935
    Jul 10, 2014 at 14:00
  • "Like, when someone is enjoying a lot of luck, fortune or doing staggeringly well in something".= A person is said to be blessed. But not: bless you. ["staggeringly well" is quite an outlier.]
    – Lambie
    Jan 11 at 17:11

5 Answers 5

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The phrase expresses a wish for God to be kind to someone. As such, it is used in its explicitly religious sense (a priest saying "bless you, my child"); to express gratitude, especially for actions that would be considered virtuous in Christian terms; in sympathy for someone's misfortune, particularly when the misfortune is an "act of God"; and, idiomatically, as a sort of patronising sentiment toward someone excessively innocent.

I've never heard anyone say "bless you" to someone who's had exceptional good luck-- that's almost the opposite of how it's usually used, so perhaps that's an idiomatic expression.

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A lot of words or phrases move away from the literal meaning and this literal meaning is bleached or ignored but instead the focus is on the function to express a kind of attitude. Some people call this pragmaticalisation; the phrase serves a pragmatic function of expressing an attitude. Out 'good-bye' or bye started life as 'God be with you' - which originally invoked a blessing on the other person. And people typically invoked a blessing when they parted, so it became associated with leave-taking and the literal meaning was forgotten. We can also think about how 'thank you' often functions not to thank someone today.

'Bless you' has also undergone pragmaticalisation. I would say that 'bless you' expresses a degree of fondness for some people who have disappointed you. In my own usage, it is similar to how I might say of say of children, 'They are uncontrollable, bless their hearts.' I would imagine that it started life as an actual blessing (as mentioned by bobtato). You are typically fond of the people you want to bless, but the usage mentioned, the fond attitude is preserved and the actual blessing forgotten.

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I am from the south, (USA), this is a pleasant way to insult or belittle someone. "He is so dumb, bless his heart". You can basically say exactly what you are thinking without reprimand if you follow it with a "bless her heart".

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It definitely expresses a wish for God to be kind to someone - or his favor to be upon someone or to express gratitude or in sympathy for loss or misfortune (meaning you hope things get better). Never heard it expressed as response to someone who has disappointed you. In Christian circles the blessing is the intent and it is never forgotten.

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The phrase, 'Bless you!' is short for 'May God bless you!'

There are two main ways in which it is used in modern conversation.

Firstly, as you point out, people say it when someone sneezes in their presence. As I believe the two uses are related, it's worth looking at the first in more detail.

In her book, 'Are You Superstitious?', Lore Cowan writes:

Some folk still believe that with a sneeze an evil spirit is forced out of the body. Others say it goes back to Prometheus, who stole heavenly fire from Olympus to animate his figure of clay, and caused the figure to sneeze, which prompted Prometheus to invoke a blessing on it.

A more prosaic reason is that the Romans brought the custom [to Britain]. They regarded the sneeze as an indication of illness or the plague, and so asked their god's blessing on the sneezer.

One other origin: It is said that in early biblical days a sneeze was a portent of death, and that it was to Jacob that God promised that it would no longer be such a tragic omen.

The phrase is also used in a variety of other ways: caring, condescending or ironic (which is what you're asking about), for instance:

Ah! Bless your heart!

(Could be spoken in genuine gratitude - or condescendingly, or ironically when the intention is not to bless, but to deride.)

Oh, bless her little cotton socks!

(Could be spoken in genuine admiration to a new mother about her newborn child - or rather condescendingly to pinpoint precocious behaviour.)

In the second case, if the intention is genuine, it would be used superstitiously and prophylactically to avert the 'evil eye' (as is the custom around the Middle East and Southern Europe); if used condescendingly or ironically, then it would still have a resonance with the conventional superstitious usage that lies behind the evocation of a blessing when someone sneezes.

We may not be aware of the historic resonances, or the reasons behind superstitions, but we carry them in our language use and culture, and it's questions like this that make us look at phrases like this and help us see them in a new light.

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