The following informant is an 8th grader. In this account she is explaining the phrase “bless you”. This is a transcription of our conversation, she is identified as SA and I am identified as K:
SA: So bless you, um… , so basically when you sneeze someone should tell you bless you because back when the plague was around, they thought sneezing was a certain death, so they said “god bless you” and that was like a prayer over it, so when you say bless you to someone you are praying for them
K: how did you hear about this
SA: From my mom, she used to tell us that when we were younger and now I always say bless you to people
Context: She told me this while at my house one weekend.
This was something I also heard growing up, and like the informant it became drilled into my head to always say bless you. Our moms are sisters, so maybe they heard it from each other, but even growing up I heard it from my other friends. What I find most interesting is that this version, along with others I have heard over the years, its sound very religious, yet people who are not religious say it. It’s become such a common manner that you might not even realize you are blessing someone.
Madeleine Hall is a Junior at USC, studying Communications. When I was about to sneeze, she said “bless you.” When I asked why she said it before I sneezed, she told me that it would steal my sneeze, that basically I would lose it. Seeing the folkloric potential, I recorded this piece.
Madeleine: Okay, when someone has to sneeze, you say “bless you”, so it takes their sneeze. I have no idea where I learned it.
I was excited to have stumbled across folklore without needing to ask for it. Also, I found her subversion of the “bless you” saying interesting. By saying it before the sneeze instead of after, the sneeze is somehow stolen from you. Also, it is worth noting that she cannot remember who she first heard this from. For her, this is a common saying taken for granted. For me, this is a common saying subverted in a new way.
The Main Piece
“I always was told to say bless you after every sneeze, I came from a very religious family and even though I didn’t totally get why I had to say it every time I would get yelled at if I didn’t.” Some folk practices are intensely practiced as in this case. The practice of saying bless you is instilled at a young age so it became a social norm for certain groups or communities. It was believed that when one sneezed the devil could come inside you so everyone would give you their blessings, at least that is what my informant was told. She later learned about the history behind the belief in high school when she learned about the bubonic plague. People would say “bless you” because if you sneezed, then there was the chance that you had the plague, which evidently meant death.
My informant is Elizabeth Kim, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC. She and her parents are Catholic, attending church every week. Her parents constantly attempt to instill in her religious values and while she does deem herself as Catholic, she is far less intense or strictly abiding to Catholic customs or practices. She found the saying interesting because it is so common among a variety of groups and communities, yet not many people know of or have different variations of why people say “bless you” when one sneezes.
I was interviewing Elizabeth towards the second semester of our freshman year outside of Parkside Apartment at USC. The setting was casual and conversation flowed easily.
It was interesting to hear about the overlap in education and religion. The commonalities between the two reveal that there can be these similarities bringing together the two. It was also interesting to hear about Elizabeth’s difference in values from her parents yet their common belief or practice.