Please: Don’t Bless Me!


I’ll do anything to keep from sneezing in some  places to avoid the predictable chorus of “bless you’s” that will inevitably follow. I’ve almost blown out my ear drums trying to stifle the compressive forces that launch a good sneeze–not to mention that in so suppressing what comes naturally I’ve been denied the explosive and weirdly pleasurable release of a good honking sneeze.

So what’s this “blessing” all about? I wondered…

One explanation holds that the custom originally began as an actual blessing. Gregory I became Pope in 590 as an outbreak of the bubonic plague was reaching Rome. In hopes of fighting off the disease, he ordered unending prayer and parades of chanters through the streets. At the time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague. The blessing (“God bless you!”) became a common effort to halt the disease.[3]

A variant of the Pope Gregory I story places it with Pope Gregory VII, then tells the common (though untrue) story of “Ring Around the Rosey” being connected to the same plague.[4]

Another version says that people used to believe that your soul can be thrown from your body when you sneeze,[1] that sneezing otherwise opened your body to invasion by the Devil[3] or evil spirits,[2] or that sneezing was your body’s effort to force out an invading evil spirit.[1] Thus, “bless you” or “God bless you” is used as a sort of shield against evil

On the other hand, there was a time when sneezing was in good taste, so people actually carried around sneeze-inducing stuff–like SNUFF.

What is snuff?

Apart from murder, and oral ” snuff”, snuff is any powder prepared for sniffing. Of course, the main use of the term is for powdered tobacco.

Way back, individuals used to have their own little snuff mills, grinding their snuff fresh from a tobacco plug (called a “carotte”)

Oral “snuff” is very coarse milled tobacco, not sniffed but put in the moutn: see Snuff in the U.S.A.
This website is not about forms of oral “snuff” (illegal in Britain, though that’s not why).
It’s about nasal snuff.

Note: “sn” is a significant phoneme in English, meaning pertaining to the nose, as in: snout, sneeze, snore, snitch, sniff, snot, snort; and, of course, snuff.

Not only that but sneezing was a sign of high breeding–on the one hand–and a sign of disdain on the other, hence, something to be sneezed at.

From “How Did It Begin?” by R. Brasch (Pocket Books, New York, 1969)

People in older times imagined that a sneeze cleared the mind. It certainly gave them a feeling of exhilaration. Suddenly, 17th century Europe caught a craze for sneezing. It was considered the right thing to do in good society. Indeed, the more you sneezed, the more you proved yourself a member of the privileged class.

To build up this new status symbol, all kinds of devices were used. It was soon realized that snuff caused sneezing. Therefore everyone who was someone carried with him a little box, containing a mixture of sneeze-producing herbs or tobacco. By drawing an ample pinch of it into the nostrils, a hearty sneeze resulted in no time.

Of course only the rich and idle had time to sneeze or could afford snuff. Hence the self-induced sneeze became synonymous with aristocratic living. If you were able to sneeze ‘on call,’ you showed audibly your status in society.

But one matter had still to be decided. Just to sneeze haphazardly was not good enough. There had to be a special occasion. Soon sneezing became part of men’s conversation. You indulged in it whenever you wanted to show your disapproval of anything said or, even more so, your lack of interest in the matter discussed. A sneeze was an unmistakable way of saying politely “you bore me.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Hi,

    You might be surprised to learn that Toque, an English nasal snuff, is the fastest growing NRT in America. Like the 17th Century Europeans American smokers are taking to nasal snuff to help them stop smoking.

    Life insurance companies now offer snuff users the same life insurance premiums as non-smokers and medical associations of the caliber of the Royal College of Physicians and Cancer Research have provided substantial evidence of the benefits of switching to nasal snuff.

    Professor Michael Russell of Cancer Research: “Snuff could save more lives and avoid more ill-health than any other preventive measure likely to be available to developed nations well into the 21st century”. “Switching from cigarettes to snuff could have enormous health benefits”. Snuffing has two major advantages, firstly there are no products of combustion such as tar, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. Secondly it cannot be inhaled into the lungs, which eliminates any risk of lung cancer.”

    Beautiful website, loved the pictures.

  2. I think you’ve forgotten to mention the downside of dry tobacco.

    Chewing tobacco and snuff contain 28 carcinogens (cancer—causing agents). The most harmful carcinogens in smokeless tobacco are the tobacco—specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). They are formed during the growing, curing, fermenting, and aging of tobacco. TSNAs have been detected in some smokeless tobacco products at levels many times higher than levels of other types of nitrosamines that are allowed in foods, such as bacon and beer.

    Other cancer—causing substances in smokeless tobacco include N—nitrosamino acids, volatile N—nitrosamines, benzo(a)pyrene, volatile aldehydes, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, crotonaldehyde, hydrazine, arsenic, nickel, cadmium, benzopyrene, and polonium—210.#

    All tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, contains nicotine, which is addictive. The amount of nicotine absorbed from smokeless tobacco is 3 to 4 times the amount delivered by a cigarette. Nicotine is absorbed more slowly from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes, but more nicotine per dose is absorbed from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes. Also, the nicotine stays in the bloodstream for a longer time.

    ScienceDaily (June 28, 2002) – BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Use of powdered, dry snuff carries a much higher relative risk of oral-cavity cancer than does the use of other smokeless tobacco products — moist snuff and chewing tobacco — according to University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers who compiled results from studies done over the past 16 years

    …for starters.

  3. Just for clarification, is it just annoying when “everybody” says bless you after a sneeze or are you offended for some reason?

    Thanks for the history of it. I am familiar with some of the info, but it is interesting in general.

  4. Offended, no. It’s just that I hate to be the cause of an office full of people feeling compelled to throw a pinch of salt over their left shoulder for good luck–or the nasal equivalent of such a superstition. My heart is not going to stop beating. I don’t have the plague. The devil isn’t going to fly into my mouth unless they intervene. It just seems silly to me.

  5. Thanks… I was just curious. I don’t believe in superstitions either… Of course I could be caught “blessing” someone, (as if I could bless them,) upon a sneeze, more for the tradition I guess or just the opportunity to bring up the subject of “blessing.”