"Bless your heart"

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Jessica Banov, "‘Bless your heart,’ unfiltered, in the national spotlight", Raleigh News & Observer 3/31/2016:

The phrase is served as the “icing” of Southern politeness, a subtle way to insult someone but without coming straight out and calling someone an idiot to his or her face.

“Bless your heart,” read the tweet that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had just zinged at Donald Trump in response to an insult directed at her, creating a widespread reaction on Twitter.

As a linguist who revels in the nuances of language, Wolfram was thrilled with the three little words Haley used to answer the GOP presidential candidate’s bluster.

“It’s the perfect comeback,” Wolfram, a professor at N.C. State University, immediately told his wife. “In a sense, it shut Donald Trump off. How do you respond when someone says, ‘Bless your heart?’ It could be a sincere thing. But it’s not, of course.”

Or, as Wilmington-based columnist Celia Rivenbark sized up that particular Trump Twitter feud, Haley won that round.

“Perfectly executed,” Rivenbark said. “She can drop the mic and move on.”

There's some discussion of the expression in this clip on Walt Wolfram's Talkin Tar Heel site.

And there are quite a few discussions on YouTube, like this set of person-in-the street interviews:

There's a video decoder key:

A tutorial:

A comedy routine:

Another comedy routine:

A song named "Bless your heart":

And another song with the punch line "I don't have to be hateful, I can just say 'Bless your heart.'."

Celia Rivenbark, "Bless Your Heart, Tramp: And Other Southern Endearments", 2006, offers this definition:

And finally, from R. Scott Brunner, "Due South: Dispatches from Down Home", 2001:

Governor Haley has clearly reached that level.


  1. fev said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    The N&O's in Raleigh. Charlotte is the Observer.

    [(myl) Oops. Fixed now.]

  2. fev said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

    … but Walt Wolfram and Celia Rivenbark in the same post is exceptionally cool.

  3. Sili said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

    l'll pray for you.

  4. Nancy Friedman said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    Mr. Verb had a post about heart-blessing several years back. Apparently — I'm not a Southerner myself, or a blesser of anything — it's far more cutting in the third person than in the second.

  5. Mark Etherton said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    Compare and contrast the response of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, to tweets from Jim Murphy, then leader of Scottish Labour, during last year’s UK General Election: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/you-okay-hun-ruth-davidson-5556814#ZsAfvFr7xLM2Y9yY.97

  6. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 6:28 pm

    Like all this kind of thing, it's always interesting (and irritating) to see people insisting that their understanding of the usage is correct and everyone who says otherwise is wrong. In this case, it's certainly true that non-southerners sometimes (often? usually?) believe that bless your heart is always sincere, but I more often see the opposite: southerners who claim that it is never sincere. But of course sometimes it is. It's very contextual. Which makes sense — that's how the ironic usage is able to be coded. And also how effective it is as an insult, because superficially it could range anywhere from sincere to slight irony to insulting heavy sarcasm and, often, there's a whole lot of plausible deniability available. Which wouldn't be the case if everywhere, all the time, it was an insult.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

    It is my impression that the expression is largely a female thing. I am not sure I have ever heard it from a man.
    (I am a native of Florida which used to be southern.)

  8. Robert Littlewood said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 3:10 am

    Here in the UK we have just "bless ", to be used when somebody has done something endearingly stupid (like, to take a random example, bought another shiny new bicycle and fallen off it). It's all in the tone of voice.

  9. Martin Ball said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 3:38 am

    In Britain it seems to me it is always sincere, and I have heard it from both men and women (a family member plus spouse over-use it to my irritation!!)

  10. Aaron Toivo said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 5:05 am

    Thinking for a bit about your last comment at the end of the post, I'm struck by the notion that for any language with an explicit politeness marker, wouldn't just using that marker all by itself, without further comment – in certain circumstances – be just about the rudest thing it's ever possible to utter without even being rude?

    [(myl) Interesting idea. It's certainly true that the single-word utterance "Please" can be quite negative in intent and uptake.]

  11. John Cowan said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    My wife was born in North Carolina in 1943, and moved to the North (Southern Florida is the North, linguistically speaking) in 1961 and to NYC about ten years later. She swears up and down that when she says "Bless your/his/her heart", it is meant as an expression of sympathy, and that she has far less crass (and for that matter more crass) ways of insulting people than to pervert such an expression. After 35 years of listening, I think she's right about herself.

    In my own usage, a bare imperative is less offensive than please with a bare imperative. The former might be excused as a matter of urgency or anger: the latter is cold contempt.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    John Cowan: In my experience (Central and North Florida – Southern during my childhood), it implies some deficiency (like intelligence, experience, education or what have you).
    As said about a child, as an example, it could be sympathetic, i.e. they understandably don't know better. As said about an otherwise normally functioning adult, it implies some deficiency and not meant complimentary.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

    I could have sworn that Ann Richards used this expression when speaking about George Bush at the 1988 Democratic convention. I looked it up and she did not. But, that was a very appropriate situation to have used it:
    " Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
    A "bless his heart" would have fit right in.

  14. Tim Morris said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

    After 28 years working in Texas, I agree with those who've said that there are a lot of nuances in the phrase. It can express some contempt but also light exasperation, or appreciation of somebody despite shortcomings, or some degree of sympathy (after all, who's exempt from "bless his heart" in one context or another). There can be an edge to the phrase, certainly, but I agree with those who've said that the edge is not obligatory or malicious.

  15. Michael said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 2:30 am

    This is sub species of left-handed compliments Other languages must have them, too. Modern Hebrew , for instance, has שתהיה לי בריא, in the same situation, roughly meaning "you should be healthy".

  16. January First-of-May said,

    April 3, 2016 @ 6:15 am

    @Michael: I immediately thought of будь здоров (also literally "be healthy"), which is what you say in Russia when someone sneezes. The Hebrew version is la briyut (don't know the spelling), which appears to literally mean the same thing as the Russian.
    The English equivalent appears to be… wait for it… "bless you".

    On the topic of "bless your heart" – I've been under the impression that this phrase is normally used when talking to elderly (old, aged, however you say it) people, and when used in reference to someone else has the connotation of comparing them to the elderly. I'm not sure where I got that from, to be honest (but the result would've been similar to what is described above).
    Not sure what the Russian version of the "left-handed compliment" is, though (I understand the connotation described, I just couldn't think of any Russian phrases that have it).

  17. Michael said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 4:41 am

    January First-of-May: The "bless you" that follows sneezing in umpteen languages is unrelated to the ironic/cynical "bless your heart" or the similarly tounge-in-cheek Hebrew expression I mentioned.

  18. Will said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    My daughter demonstrated in middle school that she perfectly understood the nuances of the expression when she reported, of a classmate, "I felt like telling him 'Bless your heart, and the horse it rode in on'."

  19. BZ said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 10:24 am

    @Aaron Toivo,
    The Russian word for "please" (pozhaluysta), doesn't really work that way because the bare "pozhaluysta" is a complete sentence that roughly translates as "here/there you go", as in when giving something to somebody. Although, much like "there you go" or "there he goes (again)", it can be used to mean "here's an example about you/this person I was talking about" which can be negative, but in a very different way than bare "please" in English.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

    I just saw an online usage of "bless his heart" in a political context apparently meant NON-pejoratively. "Just a quick update on recent civil-rights goings-on in Congress. The good: Senator Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), bless his heart, continues to harass the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this time by requiring it to play by the same rules it wants the companies it regulates to play by." This by Roger Clegg, best-known as a prominent opponent of race-conscious policies in university admissions and suchlike "affirmative action" programs. I'm not sure where Mr. Clegg grew up, but it seems a safe bet it wasn't the Deep South? (The first online clip I found of him speaking had pretty lo-fi audio, but he didn't sound particularly Southern – definitely rhotic at a minimum.)

    So perhaps we can conclude that Gov. Haley's high-profile use of the Southernism was not sufficiently high-profile to get non-Southerners to stop using the phrase in a non-pejorative way, lest they be misunderstood?

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    Sorry: should have added that while Clegg was writing for a national audience, presumably enough of Sen. Alexander's own constituents in Tennessee would be familiar with the pejorative usage (unless there's some sort of phrase-specific isogloss for it where Tenn. is on the "northern" side?) that it's particularly humorous when used to non-pejoratively praise him.

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 2:03 pm

    There's also "bless your cotton-picking heart" and Tennessee Ernie Ford's "bless your pea-picking heart." A harsh alternative is "bless your pointy little head."

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

    Ralph Hickock: ok, maybe not their best work, but "harsh"? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bless_Its_Pointed_Little_Head

  24. Mary Kate Blalock said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    As a southerner from South Georgia, I can say that “bless her heart” is used as a sympathetic gesture or an insult. This saying might have been more popular back in the day, and it also could have meant a completely different thing with an older generation. As time changes the phrases we use, it could also change the meaning of the same phrase used for generations before. In addition to the time changing the meaning, it also depends on where you come from. Different states in the south often have different meanings for this phrase, but it is no question that Nikki Haley did not mean “bless your heart” as a compliment when tweeting towards Donald Trump. “Bless your heart” was the perfect comeback without really having to say anything; she wasn’t even required to explain herself afterwards.

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