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From cheering to sneezing: Why Americans still use 'Gesundheit'

Rachel Stern
Rachel Stern - [email protected] • 17 Dec, 2021 Updated Fri 17 Dec 2021 09:26 CEST
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In many parts of the United States people still use a German word when they see someone sneeze. Gesundheit's popularity is linked to one of Germany's most famous exports - but it almost died out of use in the 1940s.

For some Germans, it might come as a surprise when they sneeze in the 'States. Instead of their God-fearing American counterparts issuing a “Bless you”, they might simply say “Gesundheit” (health).

Why Gesundheit and not an equivalent word for health from a closer country, say “Salud” in Spanish?

The origins of Gesundheit’s usage in the US can be traced back to the waves of German immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in the Midwestern States.

Back then, the word was actually used as a toast or to give gratitude. One short article in the Jamestown (then Dakota territory) Weekly Alert of 1895 titled “Gesundheit!” gives thanks for “A fine fat dear weighing 170 pounds (77 kg)” which the newspaper received as a gift.

It was also commonly used as a toast, and featured in several advertisements for beer. An ad in the Kansas City Journal from the Ferd Heim Brewing Company in 1898 features a girl in pigtails on the back of a goat, animatedly raising a glass of beer. The caption below simply states “Gesundheit!”

Another ad from the Indianapolis (Indiana) Daily Journal in 1896 says that “Gesundheit means health. It is not found in impure water, but in the pure invigorating brews of the Home Brewing Company.”

Or in a more literary context, an 1892 poem from the St. Paul Daily Globe showcases Gesundheit as a salute:

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,

If memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,

When thro’ the long-drawn glass and cool beer vault

The word “Gesundheit!” swells the toast of praise.

But the popularity of Gesundheit in the US began to die down when anti-German sentiment swelled before World War II. This shows in an article from the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph which describes how Gesundheit was verboten through a full ban at one social organisation, with a preference for a more English greeting.

“Everything with the enemy's taint - even his language - is barred at the Art Club, as the first step to banning German from club circles,” the newspaper states, pointing out that languages from Germany’s allies at the time, such as Turkish, Bulgarian and Czech, were also completely forbidden.

Yet the word remained a salute until shortly before World War II, with the Merriam Webster Dictionary even defining it as “Gesundheit n. {G.} (To your) health; - a salutation as when drinking.”

But by 1949, the meaning was steering away from a salutation to also mean “Gesundheit n. {G.} (To your) health; - a salutation as when drinking, or after a sneeze.” And by 1963, the definition had evolved from a noun to a mere interjection, with the word for the first time being “Americanized” and written in lower rather than upper case letters. gesundheit interj {G, lit, health} - used to wish good health esp. to one who has just sneezed.

That explains why it’s still a common phrase to hear in the Midwest, and as far out West as California.

“I would say it because my parents do, but I never thought about it until recently,” says Californian Lisa, 33, who never consciously considered the meaning of the word until taking a first trip to Germany last year.

For others the origins of Gesundheit are more obvious.

“I think I knew it, but in Michigan basically everyone is part German,” says Emily, a Berlin-based expat from Detroit. “My grandma in Southern Illinois used that and other German words, but as a kid I thought they were just made up.”

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Rachel Stern 2021/12/17 09:26

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