September 18, 2022 3:49 PM   Subscribe

When I was growing up, when one of us sneezed my dad would say “Gesundheit!” instead of “Bless you.” He (and I) grew up on the west coast of Canada. I am curious how common this usage is/was in non-German speaking countries. If you didn’t grow up in Germany, do you remember people saying Gesundheit after someone sneezed? Where did you grow up, and do you have German connections in your family? (My dad’s grandmother was German and I’m sure this is where he first heard it and why his mother, my grandmother, said it.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl to Writing & Language (59 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes I heard it often growing up. It was common knowledge among seemingly everyone regardless of German connections. I'm originally from Mid Atlantic/Southeast USA, but I'm pretty sure it was all known all around. It was on TV and pop culture as far as I recall.
posted by Liquidwolf at 3:55 PM on September 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

I grew up in the Rust Belt, in a place where some German immigrants settled, but don't have German connections in my family. Hearing people say 'Gesundheit' was fairly common growing up, and I often say it myself (not really a 'God' or 'bless you' kind of person) to this day.
posted by box at 3:55 PM on September 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sure, very common in the Midwest.
posted by praemunire at 3:58 PM on September 18, 2022 [17 favorites]

I still say it (for the only sneezes I recognize - those of small children). Grew up on the Canadian East Coast. Not at all German and no nearby large German communities.
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:58 PM on September 18, 2022

It's also Yiddish (borrowed from German, presumably) so some Jews use it. I (East Coast Jew born in the 80s) grew up with it.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:58 PM on September 18, 2022 [9 favorites]

Grew up in the Midwest, very common there (area with lots of 19th-century German immigrants.)
posted by songs about trains at 4:00 PM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

It's also Yiddish for the same use/phrase. My (actual) boomer parents only know snippets of Yiddish bc of internally enforced assimilation, but we all use Gesundheit. I would use it today as readily as the English kind of sayings, depending on my audience/code-switching.
Also, my dad was the son of Lithuanian and English immigrants to Toronto (he was born there), but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a teen. My mom is from LA. It's the same for both.
posted by atomicstone at 4:03 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I learned it from cartoons.
posted by SPrintF at 4:05 PM on September 18, 2022 [10 favorites]

My family said "Gesundheit!" and my mother spent a year abroad in Germany and spoke pretty good German. I don't think that's why they said it, though; one branch of the family was Pennsylvania German and I suspect that's where it came from.
posted by Peach at 4:08 PM on September 18, 2022

Yes, I heard it very commonly growing up in New Jersey as well as where I currently live in the midwest. My own family had some distant German background but it was something I heard everywhere, not just at home.

As an adult I rotate pretty randomly among gesundheit and bless you, and occasionally stick a french à tes souhaits in the mix at home just to be obnoxious because my partner has a thoroughly irrational dislike of French and sometimes I like to poke him about it.
posted by Stacey at 4:09 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

As above. Grew up in Kansas City. Heard Gesundheit way more than Bless You, (a couple of relatives might have gone that way). Family was mostly 3rd or 4th generation German folks. And the Polish and Scottish uncles. Being not raised religiously, bless you was not used on me often.

posted by Windopaene at 4:09 PM on September 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Well, yeah, SPrintF, that Looney Toons skit was probably made by (actual) boomer Ashkenazi Jews too!
posted by atomicstone at 4:10 PM on September 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

I grew up in New England and everyone says "bless you" or "god bless you" here. That's what I was taught to say by my parents, an Irish immigrant and an Italian, both Catholic. Gesundheit was what they often said on TV though. I especially remember them saying it on Gilligan's Island.

I've taken to saying Gesundheit now because I don't believe in God, don't like the whole idea of needing to be blessed because of demons inside you or whatever, and because I was brought up to say something when people sneeze and it feels really wrong to not say anything at all, however silly that may be.
posted by bondcliff at 4:10 PM on September 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Upper Midwest. Very common, What little German there was in my family was at least 5 generations past.
posted by Ookseer at 4:13 PM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Texas, 1970s, WASPs… we said "Gesundheit" all the time. Possibly as a secular alternative to "Bless You," but I didn't give it any thought. It's just what one said when a sneeze happened.
posted by mumkin at 4:14 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm 57 and I said "Gesundheit!" and "Bless you!" interchangeably growing up.

I've lived in Maine most of my life, but my late mother was of Austrian descent on her father's side; was born and raised among the descendants of German immigrants in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, and was brought up in the Lutheran church.
posted by virago at 4:14 PM on September 18, 2022

I grew up (Irish/Polish Catholic background) in suburban Boston, and later in the mid-Atlantic, and didn't really hear it until I went to college in the midwest - particularly from my (Irish Catholic Minnesotan) roommate.
posted by Pax at 4:17 PM on September 18, 2022

Very common in my area, probably from the Jewish community (although the I've heard the actual phrase in Yiddish nowadays is "Tsu Gezint," it was commonly the more German "Gezuntheit" a generation ago).
posted by epanalepsis at 4:27 PM on September 18, 2022

I’m Jewish. My mother is Brooklyn born and bred Jewish; grew up speaking Yiddish and says Gesundheit. My maternal grandmother also said Zie Gesundt as a good bye equivalent.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:28 PM on September 18, 2022

we said it as a kid, my father and mother were both 3rd generation descendants of germans from upstate new york and philadelphia. i still say it, gesundheit!
posted by dis_integration at 4:28 PM on September 18, 2022

Grew up in the 80s in Maine, heard it plenty. My family is vaguely German a few generations back but I don't think that's relevant.
posted by dizziest at 4:42 PM on September 18, 2022

Another midwesterner checking in to say, very common. My fam, on my dad’s side, came from Germany in the late 1800s to Missouri. That was more common in my house than bless you.
posted by jzb at 4:47 PM on September 18, 2022

Texas, 70s, WASP, you'd hear it pretty often along with "bless you". I'm certain it was common in Bugs Bunny cartoons, if not cartoons in general. I'm certain I got it from TV one place or another.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:47 PM on September 18, 2022

Yep, I'm in my mid-50s, from Massachusetts. My Grandma (from New Jersey) spoke Yiddish as well as English and we always said Gesundheit. I never really learned "bless you."
posted by jessamyn at 4:57 PM on September 18, 2022

Heard it all my life, here in central Indiana.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:59 PM on September 18, 2022

Native Washingtonian here (not the DC variety). I'm pretty sure I learned "bless you" growing up, but don't remember a time when I didn't hear "Gezuntheit" just as often. No one I know looks at me strangely no matter which one I use, and I flop back and forth. (Half Dutch, half German, if that makes any difference.)
posted by lhauser at 5:00 PM on September 18, 2022

Grew up in New England but mostly amongst French-Canadians and a whole slew of third generation kids except for German or Yiddish and I said it as a kid but I mispronounced it as “bazoondike”.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:00 PM on September 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Another Jew who said it, and who continued to use it later on because it's secular and I don't really care to bless anyone.
posted by less-of-course at 5:12 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yep. My parents grew up in rural Texas in a small town of mostly German immigrants. My parents’ grandparents only spoke German, and my parents only spoke English; Gesundheit is the only German word I can recall making its way into our daily conversations.
posted by gollie at 5:49 PM on September 18, 2022

Early 40s from Delaware and it was used pretty much interchangeably with “bless you”. I don’t really think I use it much these days, though. This thread is making me think I should bring it back!
posted by rhymedirective at 5:49 PM on September 18, 2022

Grew up in PA and NJ suburbs of Philadelphia and Gesundheit was what we said. Pennsylvania German on my father's maternal side, and my mother and her family emigrated from Germany when she was 6.

Mr. gudrun grew up mostly in Connecticut (though some of the family was from Pennsylvania). He says he pretty much used both Gesundheit and Bless You equally growing up.
posted by gudrun at 5:51 PM on September 18, 2022

Grew up in western PA and my grandmother's family was of German heritage, but no one spoke German. My family used it all the time.
posted by anotheraccount at 6:06 PM on September 18, 2022

New Zealand, no German relatives, I use it all the time.

(Side note: people in NZ also use "bless you" but I have never heard someone say "God bless you" after a sneeze outside of American media.)
posted by Paragon at 6:07 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I grew up saying it and I still say it. My family is from New England and lived in Germany for a few years before I was born; I don't know if that's where we (collectively) picked it up.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:28 PM on September 18, 2022

West Coast Canada, 80s.
Combination of Bless you, God Bless you, and a little bit of gesundheit. There were still "German neighbourhoods," usually up in the mountains, trending multi-generational.

When I was about 7, I rejected variations of bless and went with gesundheit as a contrarian.

Now I feel uncomfortable when someone sneezes and I don't say anything. I feel uncomfortable a lot in the fall and winter, for a deeper reason than just the aerosols.
posted by porpoise at 6:34 PM on September 18, 2022

Early 30s, southern New England, Eastern European ancestry, never heard this until my teens.
posted by Seeking Direction at 6:35 PM on September 18, 2022

As an avowed atheist, "bless you" makes me uncomfortable - I heard it constantly growing up in the US midwest. Personally I'd rather you don't acknowledge at all that I've sneezed! I may say "gesundheit" to make a point of not saying "bless you" in an informal conversation but don't make a habit of it.
posted by bendy at 7:08 PM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Australian here. This was common in Brisbane in the 80s at least amongst my parents’ circle of friends. My Mother lived in Germany for a year and my Irish Father’s best friend was Australian with German heritage. I don’t *think* that’s where they picked it up though. It was just a word people used in a slightly jokey way when someone sneezed. My grandfather - Australian, Scottish heritage - also said it!
posted by t0astie at 7:28 PM on September 18, 2022

It never even occurred to me that someone might consider this usage unusual! Maybe it's Jewish heritage and culture, Yiddish influences, plus a lineage of medical doctors who always wished health on others -- the family toast is "To your health!" -- that made the word so common in my own family but it was never out of the ordinary anywhere I went and nobody ever batted an eye about it regardless of their own cultural or regional influences. At least not that I saw.

Grew up saying this, still say it, and vastly prefer it over a cultural obligation to utter blessings. What I mean when I speak blessings is very different from what many others do; I'd prefer they not be trivial and obligatory.
posted by majick at 7:30 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Very normal to me. German ancestors on both sides, with a grandmother that grew up in North Dakota with German as her first language. I was told as a child here in Oregon that it was a German translation of God bless you, but my understanding as an adult is that it's not literally - that it's closer to a secular equivalent. (Honestly, it just *sounds* more appropriate for a sneeze, imo...)

People saying "Bless you!" or "God bless you!" sounds weird to me, but my 20-something daughter picked it up somewhere, although I've almost always said gesundheit myself. (It's an absolutely automatic, not-thought-about response.) I'm from an area that is 30-40% Hispanic area, so hearing salud (and dinero and amor when appropriate) is also not unusual at all.

I've think I've only encountered one person in my life that reacted like I was weird to say gesundheit; it may well have been to cover that they didn't know what it meant. Not really sure.
posted by stormyteal at 8:22 PM on September 18, 2022

Early 30s, India, no German communities anywhere near. Possibly picked up from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
posted by Tamanna at 10:05 PM on September 18, 2022

I grew up in the Midwest, with German great-grandparents on both sides. I remember knowing that Gesundheit was a thing that people said in place of "bless you" but I think I probably learned it from TV as I don't have any memory of anyone in my family saying it.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:10 PM on September 18, 2022

raised in similar geography & timeline as OP, and as many on the thread: zero german affiliation (also not ashkenazi) and grew up with gesundheit. because “bless you” would never have been a turn of phrase in our house, i inferred this was the alternative. glad to read how common, as i always wondered too! great Q.
posted by tamarack at 10:18 PM on September 18, 2022

I guess I grew up in a bless you house. I was happy to adopt Gezondheid! when I lived in Netherlands in my 20s. The throat-clearing initial G /ɣəˈzɔntˌɦɛi̯t/ is rather appropriate too.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:52 PM on September 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Born in Colorado. The last of my forebearers to leave Germany did so almost 200 years before I was born, so I doubt my current use of gesundheit is in any way due to them.

Instead as a kid I was taught “bleshoo”. Sometime in my teens I finally thought about what that meant, and as a budding atheist decided I needed to find something else. Gesundheit was common enough that it felt reasonable so that’s what I trained myself to say instead.
posted by nat at 12:13 AM on September 19, 2022

British, never heard anyone say it in real life (that I recall), only in US series / cartoons on television. As a consequence, although I know it's a German word, I think of this usage as purely American.

"Bless you" is very common here, but my family never said it, so I tend not to either. I've never really known how you're supposed to react to it if you're the one who sneezed.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:53 AM on September 19, 2022

Grew up in Milwaukee, which had a strong German culture, mother’s family mostly German, said Gesundheit! Bless you would have seemed odd and sort of Catholic in my Lutheran family. For what it’s worth, the commands for the dog were also in German….
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:50 AM on September 19, 2022

As an aside, I recently said “Gesundheit” to my soon-to-be-five granddaughter after she’d sneezed, and she looked at me like grandpa was speaking martian. It was pretty cute. She’d never heard the word, of course.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:41 AM on September 19, 2022

My mom does this. She grew up in Indianapolis in the 1950s, and there is a German connection: one of her grandfathers immigrated from Germany in the early 1900s.
posted by number9dream at 5:07 AM on September 19, 2022

I'm from southern Michigan. I never heard anyone say "Bless you" until I moved to Massachusetts. It struck me as strange, and I still say Gesundheit.
posted by pangolin party at 5:18 AM on September 19, 2022

Britain, 1970s/80s. We used to say this sometimes, but I've no idea why. No German or Jewish connections. I did German at secondary school but I don't think that's related, and I think gesundheit came first.
posted by fabius at 5:47 AM on September 19, 2022

My mom (born in the 1930s, upstate New York) grew up saying it, and says her parents also said it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:01 AM on September 19, 2022

From Philadelphia. No German in my background but there are definitely people with German background in the area. (I do have some Jewish background, which people are mentioning as a possibility... but not Ashkenazi.) Heard it fairly frequently growing up. I personally default to "bless you", which now that I think about it is weird because I am not particularly religious. Maybe I'll switch.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:37 AM on September 19, 2022

I say it, and suspect I got it from my Missouri German dad. I have a few random pieces of Yiddish in my lexicon and I’m not sure where I got them - possibly my Jewish great-grandfather passed some stuff down in the family, or maybe it’s just in the air on the east coast due to proximity with NYC?
posted by PussKillian at 7:41 AM on September 19, 2022

Yep, Western Virginia up in the south tail of the Appalachians Bible Belt land. Possible by family-wise last names a bit of German but so many generations ago that there's no trace. Gesundheit was quite well known. It might have even been a counter to the "god bless you" because there's no need of such for a simple sneeze. It's also a short utterance versus a full on sentence. Much more practical.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:48 AM on September 19, 2022

Grew up in Los Angeles—I say gesundheit, my parents say gesundheit, my friends say gesundheit. (But also "bless you," too!) My dad, who grew up in Rockland County, NY, assumed it was just a Jewish thing, but that really doesn't seem to be borne out by my experience.
posted by the tartare yolk at 8:49 AM on September 19, 2022

> My mom (born in the 1930s, upstate New York) grew up saying it, and says her parents also said it.

My aunt (sister of my father), born in 1936 in Central New York, almost always said "gesundheit." My father, 11 years younger, is a roughly 90/10 split between "bless you" and "gesundheit." They are descendents of English colonists who arrived in the 1600s so there's not much chance it was a family thing.
posted by MagnificentVacuum at 10:21 AM on September 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

This has been soooo interesting to me, so thanks for asking the question! How widespread and sometimes entirely unconnected to Jewish or German roots is fascinating. I grew up in West LA, going to diverse (magnet) public schools, but also very involved in egalitarian, but quite religious Jewish communities (that also frequently crossed with conservadox and modern Ortho communities) so random hebrew and Yiddish was expected. And as a kid if you asked me the Jewish population of Los Angeles, I would have said 30%. (which is bananas high! But shows my "insularish" but also very integrated community experience.)
Anyway, all of that was prologue for growing up, going to college, and moving a few times for my job and having a realization that the middle of the country "Jewish" sounding names to my ears were actually just descendants of German and Eastern Euro immigrants. But VERY not Jewish. Those same names on the Coasts? JEWISH.
posted by atomicstone at 2:30 PM on September 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Well! Wow! I never expected so many answers—thank you to everyone who weighed in. I am delighted to learn it is not only a German word but also Yiddish. I had no idea of the Jewish connections, so it is neat to learn that. I am also delighted to learn how many people also say Gesundheit—I had definitely heard it in popular culture but wasn’t sure if it was super old fashioned, or if it was one of those things where I assume it’s very common just because we did it in my family.

What prompted me to ask the question was that the last couple of times I’ve said it to my (young adult) students, they thought it was pretty weird and clearly were not familiar with the expression. But hey, I’ll probably keep saying it anyway, and now I know I’m not alone.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:43 AM on September 20, 2022 [3 favorites]

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