What “Bless Your Heart” Really Means in the South

By Paul Thomas Zenki

If you think you know, you don’t …


Lord have mercy, if I have to hear another Yankee say that “bless your heart” is Southern for “you’re an idiot” — or worse — I think I might just blow a gasket.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t entirely blame non-Southerners for this misunderstanding. I have a sneaking suspicion that much of the blame lies with Southerners themselves who enjoy blowing smoke and making folks feel like they know something when they don’t just to play with them.

The reality is, “bless your heart” is a linguistic chameleon. It can mean a whole lot of things, depending on who’s saying it to whom where and when. I’m reminded more than anything of the famous scene in Donnie Brasco when Donnie tries to explain “forget about it” to his fellow FBI agents. It means “I agree”, “I disagree”, “this is great”, “go to hell”, and of course “forget about it”.

 

“Bless your heart” in the South is the same kind of deal. If you think you know what it means in an out-of-context kind of way, then you have no idea what it means. Because it only means what it means in the moment.

Here are a few examples of what this endlessly versatile phrase can indicate. (The speaker here is a woman because it’s a phrase that women tend to use much more often than men, for some reason.)

Oh my goodness!

You walk to a friend’s house in a rainstorm. She opens the door and says, “Bless your heart, look at you, you’re soaked to the bone, now get inside this house!”

How lucky for you!

You’re a high school senior and you tell your neighbor you just got a scholarship to Emory University. She says, “Well bless your heart, that is just wonderful!”

I am so sorry

You run into a friend at the store. She takes a look at you and asks what’s wrong. You tell her you just got laid off. She says, “Well bless your heart. If there’s anything I can do, you let me know, and I mean it now.”

Don’t worry about it

You’re running late to get back to work from break and in your haste to get up you spill some of your coffee on the table. Your coworker says, “Bless your heart, you run on, I’ll wipe this up for you.”

That person is clueless

Pascual Pérez is late for a Braves game because he drove around the perimeter three times looking for the stadium. Your aunt says, “Well bless his heart, poor thing, he didn’t know any better.”

I don’t want to be nice but I have to be

The person who always has an excuse for not lifting a finger shows up at the church potluck with a bag of Ruffles and a little plastic tub of onion dip, explaining he didn’t have time to make an appetizer as promised. The organizer says, “Oh bless your heart, thank you so much, this will be fine.”

Damn right!

You tell your best friend you’ve finally had enough of your boyfriend’s sorry ways and you’ve kicked him out. She says, “Well bless your heart, honey, it’s about time.”

Thank you

You give your mother a gift for Christmas that is exactly what she’s always wanted. She says, “Bless your heart, sugar, you didn’t have to! Oh, I just love it!”

That is funny

You’re telling your grandmother a hilarious story about what happened to you yesterday. At some point you both crack up laughing and she says, “Bless your heaaaart! Oh my goodness! What’d you do then?”

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is no single definition for the phrase, and I doubt anyone could list them all. But the point is, “bless your heart” does not mean “you’re an idiot”.

Except, of course, when it does.


Header image by Pexels

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.