Gesundheit: A little linguistic legacy

If you are several generations removed from immigrant ancestors, you may find yourself longing — as I did — for some lingering evidence of a heritage connection within your own family.

Tissues. My family’s use of the word “gesundheit” when someone sneezed was likely passed down from my maternal German immigrant ancestors. By: Chris Costes

My advice is to pay careful attention, because — as I discovered with my maternal German ancestors — the evidence you seek might be found in the most unlikely place.

My German heritage comes from my maternal grandmother Elizabeth Christina Stoutner — who eloped with Anthony [Di Lorenzo] Laurence, the Italian-American boy next door in Gloversville, Fulton County, N.Y.

My mom — their oldest daughter — grew up near both my grandparents’ families, with many reminders of her ethnic roots.

Where were my ethnic clues?

But off my mom went to college. Then there was a career move, marriage to my dad, children and more moves — so by the time I was growing up in the suburbs of Binghamton, Broome County, N.Y., we were an assimilated, Baby Boom family living several hours’ drive from our nearest relatives.

I envied my friends who had closer ties to their immigrant heritage — as I enjoyed perogies and kolachkis with my Eastern European friend up the block or watched a school friend’s Italian grandmother lay handmade pasta to dry over the backs of her kitchen chairs.

Alas, there were few ethnic clues in the basic meat-and-potatoes dinner my family sat down to most evenings. But then someone would sneeze, and we would all say, “Gesundheit!” — and presto, there was my first heritage hint.

A healthful heritage hint

Gesundheit means “health” in German, but I never gave this much thought as a child. It was just something our family said. Not until at school, when I heard others say “bless you,” did I realize that not everyone said gesundheit.

Many years passed before I delved into why — and many more years still until I seriously researched my German heritage and made the connection to this salutation.

It turns out the word gesundheit arrived here with early German immigrants — like my ancestors, who came to these shores in the mid 1800s — then proliferated through the general population as German immigration picked up.

“Used to wish good health to a person who has just sneezed,” according to thefreedictionary.com, the word’s frequency of use over the decades is depicted by an online n-gram graph.

Who would have imagined that as my German-American ancestors sneezed down through the  generations, they would pass along the hearty response “Gesundheit!” as a little linguistic legacy from one generation to the next?

Or that their healthful German salutation would be passed from my immigrant Mimm, Stoutner, Albeitz and Edel great, great grandparents to their children, then to my maternal grandmother, my mom and me?

Such a small ancestral bequest — but one I am reminded of whenever I hear someone sneeze!

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin’

Please like and share:

2 thoughts on “Gesundheit: A little linguistic legacy”

  1. Grew up saying that too. And no German in my adoptive family. Also, I connected w/ some relatives and found out some more family info, which was nice. One cousin is a font of info, but she doesn’t have it all accessible for anyone else. I suggested that she start blogging about it! Courtney – Maui Jungalow

    1. That’s interesting! And one reason I posted the n-gram showing the proliferation of geshundheit over time. Glad to hear you’ve connected with family and are getting more info on your heritage. I hope your cousin does start blogging. She would be a most welcome addition to the geneabloggers’ community.

Comments are closed.