Gesundheit! Yì Băi Suì! We all fall down.

Posted on 28 February 2011

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Bless you! 一百岁! صحّة

One of the delights of moving to a new country is learning how to react to events in the local way, with all the things that come with learning a new language.

What do you say, for example, if you stub your toe? Get a fright? Or smell something untoward?

And my favourite, what you do when someone sneezes.

In English we say, “Bless you!” – short for “God bless you”.

It’s likely that it had something to do with illness and dark spirits lurking in you that you expelled when sneezing. God praises the expulsion of dark forces and germs. He loves Dettol, even if it can’t get that last 0.01%.

Now I’m sure a few of you will say, I know, I know – it’s from the Plague. Unverifiable, I’m afraid. Some say that sneezing was a symptom that you were ill with the disease – and others prayed for you to get better by sneezing it out.

But the nursery rhyme anachronistically attributed to the Plague – poem is from 1881, that Plague rampaged through Europe in the 14th century – does show something interesting:

Linking nursery rhyme Ring-a-Ring-o

Ring-a-ring-o’-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We’re all tumbled down.

Although people like me, born in the 80s, grew up singing:

Ring-a-ring-o’-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

The sound of the sneeze – (shown in the poem as “A-tishoo”) as with animal sounds, etc. – differs between languages:

  • Korean sounds like “eichi“; in Polish its “ap-tsik“; in Serbian, “apciha“; in Czech, “hepci” (in Slovak, “hapci”).
  • The Russian version of English ah-choo is transliterated ahpchkhee; the Chinese is “ah-chee“.

There are definitely similarities, but just what you say in response to a sneeze can be massively different from language to language.

However, although they do seem to fit into groups:

There is a God group with blessings and such:

  • English: “(God) Bless you“;
  • Spanish (Spain): “Jesús” (falling from fashion, so I’m told).

There is the health group:

  • Other Spanish-speaking countries: once “Salud” (health), twice – “salud y dinero‘ (adding money), or thrice – “salud y dinero y amor” (adding love);
  • Russian: “Будь здоров” (bud’ zdorov – Be healthy);
  • Polish: “Na zdrowie!” (To your health!). The Kresy believe that sneezes may be an inauspicious sign that your mother-in-law is saying things about you;
  • Persian: “الهی شکر” (elahi shokr – Thank God for my being health) – and some Arabic-speaking people say “May Allah guide you and rectify your condition”.

There is the vague wishes group:

  • French: one sneeze – “À tes souhaits” (To your wishes), a second sneeze – “À tes amours” (To your loves), and a third “À tes enfants” (To your children);
  • Romanian: “Noroc” (wishing the sneezer ‘good luck’).

There is the weird/random group:

  • Mandarin Chinese: 一百岁 (yì băi suì – One hundred years) – each sneeze gives you a hundred years of life. So apparently for those machine-gun sneezers – you might be around for some time to come;
  • Dutch: apparently sneezing three times in a row means that tomorrow will be a sunny day! (The usual response goes into the “health group” – “Gezondheid” or into a new “cheers group” with “Proost” – as if giving a toast.)

And then there’s the Japanese – and here I’ve read various things.

Some people say you say: “おだいじに” (odaijini) which means “Please take care”.

But according to my “nippophile” friend Tomm Adams, people there just ignore the event ever happened at all costs.

I leave you with an Old English sneeze response poem (which goes up to eight sneezes!), that I find rather lovely:

One’s a wish, Two’s a kiss,
Three’s a disappointment.
Four times’s a letter,
Five’s something better.
Six is silver, Seven’s gold,
Eight is a secret, never to be told.

So there – you are now qualified to respond to people’s snotty nose-related explosions throughout the world! And that’s not something to be sniffed at…

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