God Bless You! Idioms for Those With the Cold and Flu Illness

Several common cold and flu expressions have catchy stories behind them.

ByABC News
September 17, 2008, 2:52 PM

Oct. 25, 2008— -- You wake up on a cold winter's morning and find you're feeling "under the weather." You're sneezing, coughing and hacking up a storm, signs that you'll be spending your day sick and "groggy."

Most people use these and other phrases and expressions without much thought while in the throes of a cold or flu. They are so commonplace that there's little thought given to where these sayings come from.

"There are many wags and wiseacres in the world, and these people often use puns, metaphors, and word play to create striking new phrases," said Paul McFedries, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins" and owner of wordspy.com, a Web site dedicated to tracking new words and phrases that enter the English language.

"Words and phrases stick around in language most often because they fill a gap in the language," McFedries added.

Throughout time, people have come up with creative ways to describe the symptoms of getting sick, many of which have become staples in our common everyday speech.

Historically, being downtrodden with an illness was seen as a religious phenomenon.

During the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, the idea was that death "had something to do with God's will," said Dr. Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine and of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.

Even the term influenza has religious origins. A word with Italian origins, it was used to show that the influence of epidemics was "either of the stars or the devil," Markel said. "During the Renaissance, epidemics were seen as an act of God."

Several of the expressions we use to describe cold and flu sufferers have these religious etymologies, as well as nautical and military origins.

We have gathered several of these words and idioms and the stories behind them, and invite you to browse through them.

We say it in response to someone sneezing, almost automatically, but what is the story behind "God Bless You"?

There are several different theories behind why this commonly used phrase is said in reaction to a sneeze.

One tale hails from the time when an outbreak of Bubonic Plague hit Rome during medieval times.

"In 590 [A.D.], Pope Gregory I ordered the citizens of Rome to pray to fend off an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague," author McFedries said.

"Since people of the day thought a sneeze was a symptom of the plague, they would say 'God Bless You' to the sneezer."

Another belief is that when one sneezes, their heart stops. Saying "God Bless You" is believed to make the sneezer return to life or make their heart continue to beat.

The act of sneezing itself is viewed as positive or negative, depending on the story to which you subscribe.

The positive explanation states that sneezing helps cleanse the body of evil spirits.

Contrary to that belief, a sneeze was also seen as a bad omen.

"People used to believe that your soul was thrown from your body during a sneeze," McFedries said.

It is believed that the departure of one's soul from you body left him or her unprotected from evil spirits. After sneezing, the body was susceptible to invasion by the Devil himself.