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

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

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.

One would assume the phrase "under the weather" would refer to people usually getting stricken with cold or flu during the winter months. But the origins of the term we equate with feeling sick is not related to cold weather at all.

Instead, "under the weather" is a saying with a nautical background. Sailors and passengers on ships would get ill or seasick during their journey. Sick passengers were ordered to go below deck, which was believed to be the most stable part of the ship as well as a shelter from the weather. This was to ensure a speedy recovery from whatever was ailing them.

"[A passenger would] be protected from the elements -- literally 'under the weather' -- and this became a synonym for being ill," McFedries pointed out.

This is a tricky one. Silver is known to have antimicrobial properties that can ward off bacteria and viruses. But whether the old adage "born with a silver spoon in your mouth" is related to this scientific fact is debatable.

In medieval tradition, wealthy godparents gave their grandchildren silver spoons as gifts during at their christening ceremonies. Because only the rich could afford such items, silver spoons became a symbol of the affluent.

"The elite class already had silver," said Albert Jack, historian and author of "Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Everyday." Since the upper class of society had silver among their troves of treasures, those born into that class were seen as "born with a silver spoon in their mouths."

The phrase has appeared in several pieces of literature, including Cervantes' "Don Quixote." It made its first appearance in American language in the "Adams Family Correspondence," a collection of letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams.

The connection to colds and flu or just being sick in general is unclear. Some definitions of the phrase state that because children fed with silver spoons were observed to get sick less often as opposed to the poor class, "born with a silver spoon in your mouth" has a medical origin.

Phrase experts are skeptical of this assertion.

"This means 'born into a wealthy family,'" McFedries said. "So it doesn't have anything to do with colds, flu or illness."

"Sick as a dog" is a familiar phrase uttered among us to refer to someone who is battling a nasty cold or flu. But why is man's best friend included in the phrase?

Across the pond in London, they use "sick as a parrot" instead to deliver the notion that someone is really sick. As with "under the weather," "sick as a parrot" also has a nautical history.

"Parrots [were carried] onboard sailing ships," historian Jack said, adding that sailors would take them along long trips across oceans.

Among the supply of food on the ship was raw fruit that would easily spoil. The rotted fruits was given to the parrots to eat.

"[The juice of] the raw fruit would turn to alcohol," Jack said. "The parrots would consume the fermenting fruit," which led to some unfortunate consequences.

In reaction to eating the spoiled loot, the parrots would get sick and woozy and start throwing up, much like the reaction from drinking one too many.

The symptoms of digesting these rotted items were seen to be very similar to those from stomach flu, hence the phrase "sick as parrot."

When the phrase was transported to America, it morphed into "sick as a dog," not referring to someone with a cold or flu, but the nauseous reaction one gets after eating something unagreeable to the stomach.

A "clean bill of health" is an indication that someone is cleared to do something because they do not have any serious ailments, as shown by their doctor.

Originally, the bill was an actual document not just for one person, but for an entire passenger crew on a ship.

"A doctor would come on board" and inspect the entire ship for any signs of communicable diseases such as cholera, the Bubonic plague or typhus -- transmittable diseases that would kill lots of people quickly, according to Michigan's Markel.

If there was no sign of any of these diseases, the doctor would issue a document showing that the port the ship sailed from did not endure any epidemic or infection at the time of departure.

This physical medical document has developed into a metaphorical one in language. We now use the phrase to mean that a person is completely healthy and void of any sickness.

We've heard of "keeping the enemy at bay." Well, a variation of that expression is used to refer to the cold and flu.

The phrase had its beginnings in military wars and battles. During the Greek and Roman era, the Bay tree was believed to have unique powers of protection.

Because the Bay tree was seen as a shield of safety, Greek and Roman soldiers would gather under the tree whenever stormy weather struck.

"Roman and Greek soldiers would always shelter under [the tree] during storms," Jack said.

The Bay tree then became a symbol of strength and protection, and became incorporated into the military uniforms to guard them from opposing armies.

"Soon, the men would be wearing them in the belief they would keep the enemy at bay," Jack reported.

When evolved into "keeping a cold at bay," the cold becomes equated with enemy at battle, providing an interesting metaphor for fighting the cold and flu.

You barely can get your eyes to open in the early hours of the morning, yet you need to get up for work. Such an experience is sometimes defined as "feeling groggy."

The British, however, use the term to refer to someone as being sick or ill.

The origins of "feeling groggy" can be traced back to a military general during the 18th century -- Admiral Vernon, "commander-in-chief of the British forces in the West Indies in 1740," Jack pointed out.

"He was known throughout the Fleet as Old Grog, thanks to his trademark Grogam coat," an tidbit Jack related.

Vernon made a strong effort to restrict and reduce rations of rum and alcohol among his fleet of men, an unpopular decision that dissatisfied many. This unpopular ration amount soon became known as Grog.

The term over time transformed into "groggy," which was used to describe any intoxicated and sick sailor. Because of the similarities of symptoms between one who's drunk and someone sick, "feeling groggy" became a term to also refer to illness.

If you get a vaccine for the flu, "you have a cow to thank, both medically and linguistically," according to McFedries.

In 1796, Edward Jenner, a physician, observed that for some reason, milkmaids seemed to be immune from the smallpox infection that was plaguing the population. He saw, though, they got a milder disease -- namely, cowpox.

"Jenner wondered if the pus from the milkmaid's cowpox blisters was somehow preventing them from contracting smallpox," McFedries said.

To test this hypothesis, Jenner extracted some cowpox pus and inoculated an 8-year-old girl with it (a practice that would now be deemed unethical in the practice of medical studies).

Jenner found that the cowpox virus did make the little girl immune to smallpox. In naming this new medical advancement, Jenner turned to classical Latin.

He called his injection the "vaccine virus". The word vaccine is derived from the Latin word "vacca" meaning cow.

"By 1846, the word vaccine was in general use as any substance that inoculates against a disease," McFedries said.

We are all familiar with the nasty signs of nausea, feeling queasy and having the unwanted urge to bury your head in a toilet to vomit.

We know it to mean "you're not feeling exactly ship-shape," McFedries said.

"That's true physically, but it's also true etymologically," McFedries added.

The word "nausea" has Greek origins, where their term for seasickness was nausia. This term is actually a combination of two words in the Greek language -- naus meaning ship and the suffix -ia meaning sickness.

When put together, the word nausia literally means ship sickness, referring to that uneasy feeling that some may get after staying too long on a rocking boat.

We now use it as a word to signify the symptom of wanting to throw up, whether you're on a ship or not.


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