Friday, June 10, 2005


German for Travelers

The other day, B and I were walking down a street in Germany. As we passed a group of people waiting for the bus, we heard one of them sneeze. B speaks as few words of German as I do, yet she blurted out in perfect German:

TANGENTIAL GESUNDHEIT-RELATED TRIVIA: I say this subject to correction by someone who actually knows German, but Gesundheit means “good health.” This seems like such a pleasant and also sensible thing to say to someone who sneezes, in marked contrast to the bizarrely religious and superstitious “bless you” in our language. Germans apparently think a sneeze is a sign of a cold, whereas we English-speakers seem to think a sneeze signifies that Satan is at hand. Quick, call an exorcist!

In German outdoor markets, they put your fruit in these cute, cone-shaped paper bags that say “Esst mehr Früchte, sie erhalten gesund.” I’m going to take a flyer and translate it as “eat more fruit, preserve your health."



I say the same thing after sneezes. Residual Yiddish, three generations later....
Saying "bless you" after a sneeze, I believe is attributable to the Black Death (that also gave us the quaint nursery rhyme "Ring around the Rosie" more on that in a minute) - the "bless you" was to keep the plague away and/or help you with your last rites, as the case may be.

If you think about the lyrics to "Ring around the rosie", you will quickly realize it's really quite the morbid death chant:

Ring around the rosie (this I'm not clear on, but it could be an oblique reference to a visible symptom of the plague)
A pocket full of posies (referring to herbs that people would put near themselves to ward off the plague)
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down (referring, of course, to the burning of the dead, and everyone dying of the plague)
Aren't you glad that we can all laugh about it now, since it happened so long ago?
More trivia: I was taught (by my father) to respond with “Ist besser wie Krankheit”.
OK, that would be a funny answer. Usually you just say "Danke." - "Thanks."
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