08 August 2010

Health! Bless You!

"Bless you" is a common English phrase said to someone when he or she sneezes.  Socially, the word "bless" has lost its religious connotations in the United States.  It's used quite casually in various sayings: "bless your heart" (old-fashioned saying to express sympathies), "blessing and a curse" (something good and bad), "blessed day" (wonderful day), and "you have our blessing" (usually granted from parents as a sign of approval). These are just a few examples.

But if you look up the word "bless" in Merriam-Webster (www.m-w.com), the formal definition is very much based on religion:
     1 : to hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word
     2 : to hallow with the sign of the cross
     3 : to invoke divine care for —used in the phrase bless you to wish good health    
         especially to one who has just sneezed
     4 a : praise, glorify b : to speak well of : approve
     5 : to confer prosperity or happiness upon
     6 archaic : protect, preserve
     7 : endow, favor

So when I sneeze, and a person says "bless you" - who is blessing me? That person? God? The ghost of Pope Gregory I who supposedly originated the tradition of this expression in the 6th century, when people believed that sneezing was an early symptom of the bubonic plague? Does my soul really momentarily exit my body, or does my heart really stop beating when I sneeze? Or as the Buddhists believe, am I clearing my consciousness while spewing out snot and dust particles?

Why must sneezing be such a complicated and mysterious act?

Why do Latin Americans, who on the whole are much more known for being religious with their traditional Catholicism, instead say "salud" when someone sneezes?  They don't go around blessing each other. Salud literally means "health," and it makes a lot more sense to wish someone good health, rather than offer some kind of vague blessing with questionable origins.

The Founders of the United States, beginning with the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .") called for the legal and political separation of church and state.  Yet, our pennies trust in God, city council meetings begin with the Our Father prayer, and apparently, our sneezes leave us at the mercy of being possessed by the devil.

I'll favor the Latin Americans on this one.

p.s. freelance business progress of the day: wrote copy for current restaurant client.

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