German words expats should know: Gesundheit
German words expats should know: Gesundheit
Sneeze in the vicinity of someone in Germany, and they will probably say: “Gesundheit!” It’s only polite. As you may know, this word literally means “health” and is used in the same way as English people say “bless you” - but where did this habit of blessing someone when they sneeze come from, and why do so many Americans use this particular German word?
Formed of the word “gesund” (healthy) and the suffix “-heit” (-hood), Gesundheit literally means “health-hood”, or the state of being healthy. When we use it as an interjection - most commonly after a sneeze - we’re wishing someone good health.
Interestingly, it’s not just the Germans that wish each other health after a sneeze. Both the Dutch gezondheid and the Afrikaans gesondheid share their roots with the same word and are used in the same situation. In Albania, Bulgaria, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia and Ukraine - to name but a few countries - they also wish good health upon sneezers.
But why, you might ask, do people grasp for this particular interjection when someone says “achoo”? Well, there’s a few theories as to that. The first, and most plausible, explanation is that sneezing was (often rightly) seen as a precursor to illness - most famously, the plague - and wishing them health was thought to hold off the disease.
The same can be said of the interjection, “God bless you”, by which the speaker would wish the sneezer divine intervention in their recovery from illness. It was also once believed that your soul might exit your body when you sneezed, or conversely that a sneeze might let demons in, and so people said “God bless you” to try to forestall this danger.
At one time, the term Gesundheit was also used as a toast in German, in the form of “auf ihre Gesundheit!” (“To your health!”). Although now mostly obsolete, this does help us explain how this little German word entered popular usage in the United States.
Why do Americans say gesundheit (or gazuntite, as it’s often misspelled)
Foreign words are certainly common in the English language, and there’s no shortage of borrowed German terms (think Kindergarten, doppelganger, schadenfreude, the list goes on…) so perhaps it’s not surprising that the word gesundheit is still commonly used in the US today, primarily in the Midwest, to bless someone when they sneeze.
Like so many other customs, traditions, and elements of language, the word is said to have made its way over to the United States along with the waves of German-speaking migrants who headed west in the 19th and 20th centuries.
At the time, the word was mostly used as a toast or an expression of gratitude. It can be found in numerous newspaper articles, advertisements and even poetry from the time. Gesundheit entered common American usage as simply a synonym for the blessing, “To your health!”
However, with anti-German sentiments rising in the lead-up to World War II, the popularity of the word Gesundheit, and anything perceived to be German-related, waned spectacularly in the 1930s and 1940s.
But then after the war and into the 1960s, Gesundheit began to stage something of a renaissance, just as it also began to evolve. It’s not exactly clear why - and with something as fluid as language, it never really is - but over time the meaning of “Gesundheit” began to shift, so that it could be used not only as a salutation while drinking, but also after a sneeze.
And by 1963 the drinking part had as good as been dropped, with the Merriam Webster Dictionary listing its definition as an interjection used to wish good health, especially “to someone who has just sneezed.” For the first time, also, gesundheit became “Americanised”, spelt with a lower-case g.
Over time, the word has become even more Americanised to give rise to the spelling “gazuntite” - not a word you’ll ever find in the dictionary, but a common, phonetically-sounded-out misspelling of the word “gesundheit” - a blessing that is often said, but rarely written down.
How to pronounce Gesundheit
Americans might have their own way of saying it, but here in Germany this is how you pronounce Gesundheit:
How to say bless you in German
So, there you have it: next time someone sneezes next to you in Germany, make sure to wish them good health. Gesundheit!