Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I was completely baffled today to discover that the standard french reaction to someone sneezing is a phrase "A vos souhaits" (lit. "to your wishes"), which necessitated an immediate impromptu google search for the etymology and context of this custom.

Turns out that the French have a few options for what to say when one sneezes:
  • a vos souhaits
  • a vos amours (to your loves) -- generally, after second consecutive sneeze
  • a vos aïeux (to your ancestors) -- used more rarely
  • creve! (die!) -- addressing the illness itself, very informal
  • que le Seigneur vous benisse (may Lord bless you) -- in very religious circles
  • Dieu vous benisse (God bless you) -- obsolete, supposedly an older expression similar to the english one
The swiss francophones, turns out, would say "santé" ("[I wish you] health") which is likely due to their close contact with the Germans, who in similar situations say "Gesundheit" ("Good health"), or Italians, who also say "Salute" ("[to your] health"). Yiddish speakers also use "Gesundheit" verbatim, and Russians also say "Bud'te zdorovy" which has the same meaning.

A comparative analysis of the sneeze-phrases used in different languages (listed on Wikipedia's Sneeze page) allows us to group sneeze-expressions into following categories:
  • wishes of health
  • wish of God's blessing for the sneezer
  • praise of God (stemming from an interpretation of a sneeze as a divine sign)
  • wishes of long life
  • wish of purity (Persians -- can it have something to do with Zoroastrianism, which is obsessed with purity?)
  • and finally, for very few cultures, notably Chinese and Japanese, the sneezing person is expected to apologize ("excuse me", etc). Of course, it seems like recently this is becoming the more accepted behavior for English and French-speakers, etc, but certainly that's not the traditional behavior. 
  • a really out-of-line one is the Korean reaction, where sneezing is only considered a sign that someone might be talking about the sneezer, and therefore the sneezer might remark "did someone talk about me?"
All that considered, the French "a vos souhaits" is a bit out of line. I have a few versions for this -- first, in line with the "divine sign" interpretation, where sneezing is a positive sign, the person saying "a vos souhaits" could be "redirecting" the divine blessing over to the sneezing person's wishes. Second option is that this is meant to somehow compensate for the sneeze, in the sense of "you may have sneezed, but here's to your wishes". 

Any authorities on french sneeze-talk among the many readers of this blog?

A three-page discussion on WordReference forums
Wikipedia: Gesundheit
Wikipedia: Sneeze 

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