Several months ago a popular blog apparently set out to explain what the Southern expression “bless your heart” really means. Unfortunately it seems, to me at least, that this blog post was written by someone who speaks Southern as a second language and really doesn’t understand the nuances.
I now feel compelled to speak because I actually overheard a checker at the Walmart in my very northern town telling a co-worker, who was about to move to Mississippi, that “when a Southerner says ‘bless your heart’ it means ‘F’ you.”
Um, no. It doesn’t. Not even in Mississippi.
To understand Southern speak you need to know two things. Southerners do not speak directly, which is sometimes confusing to Yankees – which to Southerners means everybody else. And secondly, Southerners are traditionally raised to always be polite, therefore we try to sound polite even when we’re being snarky.
As for “bless your heart,” on rare occasions you could receive a full-frontal “bless your heart” intended as a subtle insult or rebuff. This will likely only happen if you are whining about something minor, trying to sound like an expert when you’re not, or spinning a tall tale that stretches credulity. In such cases a Southerner will listen and nod politely and then possibly respond, “well bless your heart” with a knowing smile to the other people in the room. I emphasize that this use of “bless your heart” would be a generally rare occurrence and you’d pretty much have to set yourself up for it.
“Bless your heart” can also be a sincere remark of concern, often followed by, “I’ll put you on the prayer list at church.” If someone says they will pray for you, you can be assured it is not meant an insult with or without a “bless your heart.”
In my experience the most common use, by far, of “bless her/his heart” is to soften the edge of a less than charitable remark. This is always spoken in third person.
I’ll share an example of this usage in a comment made by a late aunt of mine – a molasses sweet Southern belle. I remember her once remarking, “She’s not what you’d call a pretty girl, bless her heart.”
This sentence has so many layers of meaning a diagram couldn’t do it justice. It’s a primer on Southern speech. She makes her point without ever saying the girl is ugly. This is a classic example of how Southerners speak in an indirect way, often describing what something is by saying what it isn’t.
Even that sounded too harsh to my aunt’s ears, so she softened it with a “bless her heart.” In this case “bless her heart” means the girl is homely but she can’t help it.
If you’ve ever wondered what Southern speak is all about, I hope this helps a teensy bit, bless your heart.