I sneezed in the street the other day, and two genial old ladies threw me a kindly "Bless You", as genial old ladies are wont to do. Now, however, I had a problem. Did I thank them, accepting and applauding their acknowledgment of my furious nasal outburst, or not thank them, and incur the viscous, burning wrath reserved wholely and completely for genial old ladies?
The definitive reason that people say "Bless You" is not known, but there are a number of stories. Some say it was a way of preparing the soul for the journey heavenwards (or not) during the time of the Black Plague, because a sneeze back then implied infection and friends that would remember somewhere else that they had to be, very soon and very far away. Some say it was a precaution, preventing the devil from entering the sneezer's body during that fraction of a second during which his soul was shunted out through his nose, before snapping back in again like a metaphysical yo-yo. And some say it was simply an acknowledgement of the fact that the gods had evidently blessed the sneezer with good fortune, in addition to the sparkly clean sinuses.
But hardly anyone *knows* any of these stories, let alone believes in them. Least of all genial old ladies.
Because the fact remains that sneezing is, quite simply, a bodily evacuation. Dust, pollen, harsh sunlight, a full stomach (see "Snatiation") can all cause sneezing, and yet we treat the act with a reverence, and its actors with a kindly, patronizing caress, as if it couldn't be helped and that for this reason if no other it should be regarded as cute. Flatulence can't be helped either, sometimes, but I've yet to receive a kindly smile and coddling pat on the shoulder for unclenching on the street. Coughing and burping evoke annoyance and disdain, and the feelings getting more righteous and repellent the further south and more solid you go with your examples.
So the question is then, why do we still say "Bless You" when we sneeze? And, more importantly, why do we feel the need to thank the person blessing us for pointing the act out to us?
In effect, sneezers of the world are expected to explicitly thank complete strangers for acknowledging the fact that they have just committed one of the more violent and nasty bodily purges. Thank you, we are supposed to say, for calling attention to the fact that my nasal passages and associated mucosae have just been used in a private field test of the Venturi effect. The fact that you are blessing me must, I assume, simply be your way of helping me be aware of what I have done, because I know you cannot possibly believe that this puts me in need of any actual blessing, regardless of your or my own religious affiliations.
And if we do not thank the bless-you-ers of the world, we feel a burning sense of impoliteness, as if we have just greeted an act of kindness with complete disregard. Which I guess we have done, but only if you stretch the phrase "act of kindness" to include pretty much everything that can safely be regarded as "not unkind".
Yes, I suppose you can be expected to be gracious when a stranger wishes you health, for whatever reason. But if that is going to be your argument, I am going to expect "Bless You"s and "Gesundheit"s after every bodily outburst, thank you, because my Peroutka Sneeze Gene is far less life threatening than my boisterous and full-bodied cough. Less bloody, too.