Illustration by Sheila Phalon.

Illustration by Sheila Phalon.

“When God sneezed, I didn’t know what to say,” Henny Youngman famously cracked. And I don’t know what to say when people sneeze.

Are all sneezers believers? Probably not. So “God bless you” seems presumptuous to offer a stranger, or even a friend or family member. Devout, doubting, denying, or somewhere on the spectrum: Hard to know who’s where, when.

So how to handle the compulsion to say something in response to a sneeze? It’s so ancient and pervasive an impulse that the Internet runneth over with folklore and theory.

Your heart stops when you sneeze. Your soul escapes your body in the spritz. The devil flies up your nostrils and heads for your gonads. Or, as some cultures see it, you’re targeted for good luck, and an invocation is in order to seal the deal.

New York psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Aneil Shirke offered me a different spin. “We say something kind to undo our unconscious negative feelings about the sound and smell of other people’s sneezes.”

Thus the Chinese typically wish you to live a hundred years, Danes and Swedes toast you with “Prosit!”—and the French, of course, invoke love: “A tes/vos amours.” And, the world over, piously or reflexively, people say, “God bless you.”

Autumn is plague season, and this year, with Ebola on the mind, one naturally thinks of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.), who assumed the papacy during a surge of bubonic plague. Reflecting the widely held belief that sneezes were a plague symptom (the Mayo Clinic and other modern experts disagree), he mandated that “God bless you” be directed toward every sneezer. The custom caught on.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “There is no evidence indicating that Ebola virus is spread by coughing or sneezing. Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola; the virus is not transmitted through the air (like measles virus).” This distinguishes it from viral diseases, such as chicken pox, that can be communicated by airborne particles.

But fear of a new plague will make a mashup of reason, as it did with the advent of HIV-AIDS. I anticipate a wildfire epidemic of “God bless you”—directed at sneezers and also everyone in range.

I’m increasingly allergic to this utterance. The sub-textual bad science irks me. And, beyond striking me as rude to nonbelievers, it feels demeaning to deists. God as spiritual Kleenex? Let us render unto sneezers that which is sneezers’.

Proposed: Next time you hear “Achoo!,” cordially say, “Gazebo!”

The word sprang to my lips at a festive secular Rosh Hashanah dinner hosted by my daughter and partners. Rose laughed and said, “Wonderful!”

Why Gazebo? I guess for the same reason that Rose and I often reply to “Thank you” with “You’re Velcro.” It sounds so right.

Ga-ZEE-bow. Starts with a G and has three syllables, the middle one emphasized, like God bless you or the runner-up Gesundheit (from the German word for health). It almost rhymes with placebo!

And—I think this is cool—there’s no agreed-upon etymology for gazebo, which has been in the language since the mid-eighteenth century to describe a small, free-standing, open-sided building, often an octagon. There are several beautiful gazebos near my childhood home in Hartford—one in the lush rose garden at Elizabeth Park, one behind the grand Hill-Stead Museum. To my ear, the word invokes a kind of Henry James graciousness, women in muslin dresses, the beautiful opposite of sneezes.

As for the sneezer’s proper response to “Gazebo!”: the scrivener with whom I share my life, tissues and all, brilliantly suggested “Geschnetzeltes!” [guh-SHNETZ-uhl-tease] It’s the name of a creamy Swiss veal dish, as comforting as chicken soup, which just happens to sound like a nose being blown.

Altogether now. “Achoo!” “Gazebo!” “Geschnetzeltes!

Let’s see if we can make it go viral.

 

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  • Anne Phalon November 8, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    I, too, feel uncomfortable saying “god bless you,” and so usually utter a totally inadequate “bless you.” But Gazebo offers the sneezer both solace and protection. I remember as a child rushing to the screened gazebo in our neighborhood park in Jersey City, known familiarly as “Mosquito Park,” which tells you what we were being protected from. So henceforth I’ll follow the World According to Weber and when someone sneezes, say Gazebo. Kudos to Nancy Weber for another thoughtful, informative, and humorous essay.

    Reply
  • Roz Warren November 8, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Great essay. I always say Gesundheit when somebody sneezes. Actually, I enjoy it. Seems like a friendly gesture to me, and harmless.

    Reply
  • annie vanderven November 8, 2014 at 7:10 am

    Sorry to disagree with you about the french expression it is not “a tes amours” it is “a tes souhaits” = to your wishes”

    Annie v.

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    • Nancy Weber November 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Merci. Annie, mais a chacune son nez! Wiki likes “a tes souhaits…” for the first sneeze, “a tes amours…” for the second….& “qu’elles durent toujours” after the third. I confess I went with l’amour for the sweetness of it, the cherished cultural trope. I’m a fairly loud sneezer, in France as elsewhere, though I do the chefly thing & direct the exudate toward my shoulders; & it seems to me that French speakers most often say “Sante” & duck for cover.

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