The Northern Southerner: Bless My Heart?

July 22, 2015 | By | Comments (95)

Raised in Washington state, Hannah Norling has never lived in the South before. Now habituating to Alabama, she is experiencing the South for the first time as a resident and documenting the whole thing. Welcome to the Northern Southerner. 

Courtesy of Gone With the Wind

Courtesy of Gone With the Wind

Before I moved to the South, I was perusing through the Internet, searching things such as “Southern sayings” and “what is an okra?” Anyway, one phrase in particular kept coming up, “bless your heart”. From my understanding, “bless your heart” is a precursor to an insult, a little something to soften the blow, Southern-style. The funny thing about bless your heart is that I’ve read about it all over the Internet but I’ve never heard it used in real life until someone said it to me.

Dun dun dun!

Let me explain.

I had been invited to a going away celebration in downtown Birmingham just around dinnertime. Cars crowded the streets, and spaces were limited. Here I was, driving my little red car around the block, over and over again. When a man on his cell phone started to take notice that I had driven down 1st Ave five times, I called it quits.

The next day I told my co-worker the long-winded story about why I missed her going away party. She put a hand to her chest and said “Oh bless your heart!” Confusion overtook my brain. She was saying it so nicely, but everything I had ever heard about “bless your heart” was negative.

I asked my Southern co-worker if she had just insulted me.

She laughed and explained that depending on the person, “bless your heart” is also used to express sympathy or genuine concern. Mind. Blown. My co-worker was now the National Treasurer of Southern sayings. I was like … the Indiana Jones of deciphering Southern slang.

From that point on, it was like I was hearing bless your heart everywhere. In the grocery store, in songs, in passing, I swear, if dogs could talk, they would say it too. I took to the office cubes for further investigation of the meaning of “bless your heart” and the findings were split. Alas, no conclusion for the Northern Southerner at the Southern Living office. There is hope though to finding the meaning of bless your heart. It’s up to YOU to help me (“bless your heart” if you do?)

Now, Southerners and non-Southerners alike, I’d like to take a poll. What do you think the phrase “Bless Your Heart” generally means? Is it a comforting word pillow before throwing down an insult or is it a genuine blessing on thy heart?

What more from the Northern Southerner? Find it here.

COMMENTS

  1. The Northern Southerner: Guess the Northern Sayings | Southern Living Blog

    […] last week, I received a pretty big response to my analysis of “bless your heart“. After carefully reading the comments, I can now safely say I understand that “bless […]

    July 30, 2015 at 9:03 am
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    July 30, 2015 at 12:16 am
  3. Dannett Smith

    I am a displaced southerner now living and working in Wisconsin… Yankeeville if I ever saw it! I worked at a small home-town newspaper and had a column called G.R.I.T.S.- Thoughts from a Girl Raised In The South. I often had columns defining my “southern-isms” and traditions… Now, 15 years later and 8 years after leaving the newspaper, my yankee friends still remember me as the GRITS girl and appreciate my educating them on what hot boiled peanuts really are.

    July 28, 2015 at 12:51 pm
  4. Peggy Rau

    My Aunt Sue always told me you can say anything about anybody as long as you added “Well Bless Your Heart” at the end. I am now living in the north, and bless me I use it more than not. Because no one here seems to understand my Southern ways so I can be extremely polite about putting them in their place. Thank goodness I was raised in the south with fried okra, grits, love of family,and my love of land

    July 28, 2015 at 12:02 pm
  5. Gina Spelvin

    Wanna have some genuine (jen-u-wine) Southern fried laughs? Read Jill Connor Browne’s
    “The Sweet Potato Queens” books. You’ll want to slap yer grandma (another phrase that shocked this Northern born girl living now in TN).

    July 25, 2015 at 4:44 pm
  6. catkittycat

    I am a native of South Carolina (I believe that qualifies as “Southern”, lol) and I agree about the context. If I’ve learned of a tragedy in your life and say, “Bless your heart”, it’s sincere sympathy. BUT! If Donald Trump says just ONCE MORE “I’m rich!” or “I’m very smart!” I will go into a snarling southernbelle hissy fit and spit out, “Well, BLESS YOUR HEART, Mr. Trump!”–and THAT will NOT be intended kindly. More like cussing him out actually.😉 P.S. Welcome to the South and good luck–most of us are harmless. And one thing is ALL-IMPORTANT: neverneverneverNEVER say “ya’ll” when addressing just one person. “YA’LL” is ALWAYS PLURAL and hearing it used improperly drives Southerners screaming mad (as in psychotic, not angry.) Yes, once in a while (this is where it gets confusing) you WILL hear a genuine Southerner asking another genuine/single Southerner, “So how are ya’ll doing?” In that case, Southerner #1 is asking about the welfare of Southerner #2 PLUS OTHER MEMBERS of his/her family. If you’re asking how *I* am, you’ll say simply, “How are YOU doing?”–just like a Yankee (bless their hearts.) But if you’re inquiring about my mother and me, you say, “How are YA’LL doing?” Sufficiently confused now? **GRIN**

    July 24, 2015 at 3:46 pm
  7. Allison

    It can be meant both ways. It depends on how its said. Most of the time its sympathetic. Southerners are patient to an extent.

    July 23, 2015 at 11:33 pm
  8. Boone

    It’s all in context.

    July 23, 2015 at 8:43 pm
  9. Delilah Jenks

    I am a Southerner, born ans reared there. North Carolina to be exact. Bless your heart is a term for a person to show genuine sympathy for a person who needs comfort. It is a way to ask God to bless you.

    July 23, 2015 at 7:50 pm
  10. ashley
    July 23, 2015 at 7:14 pm
  11. Kay

    When I say this…. I mean it in a sincere caring way. Feeling for what the person is going through or has gone through.

    July 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm
  12. Cindy

    It also can convey deep affection commingled with piercing empathy. My best friend’s grandmother was dying. She put her hand out and touched her heartbroken son on his cheek gently and said,” Ohhh bless your heart.”

    It is ALL things.

    July 23, 2015 at 12:44 pm
  13. Tammy Raynes

    I live in Louisiana where you hear a lot of southern talk. My favorite is “Well bless my soul.” Usually said with hand on chest as if saying, “Well whaddya know.” or “You don’t say.”

    And yes I’ve caught myself using several phrases and laughed at myself afterwards. LOL

    July 23, 2015 at 11:15 am
  14. Shane Denney

    In the south “Bless your heart” is a lot like the phrase “forget about it” as explained by Johnny Depp in the movie Donnie Brasco. These three words can be used to convey different messages depending on tone of voice and situation. Anything from sympathy to aggravation and all emotions between. And sometimes it just means “Bless your heart.”

    July 23, 2015 at 10:39 am
  15. Betty Madsen

    When I grew up in Arkansas, this was usually accompanied with a hand on my shoulder or arm, a soft look of concern and the sense that I was loved and that my problem was shared by someone who really cared.

    July 23, 2015 at 10:25 am
  16. Jackie Coulston

    I too am from the north but have lived in North Carolina for the past 27 years. I have heard this expression over and over and ALWAYS in a sincere and sympathic way.

    July 23, 2015 at 9:00 am
  17. Kathleen

    Jan:

    “A true, gentile Southerner does not use “bless your heart” in a derogatory or insulting way. If they say something, they mean it.”
    **************************************
    Exactly.

    July 23, 2015 at 8:21 am
  18. Diane Pelaez

    I’ve used this expression my whole life. I have never meant it in a negative way.

    July 23, 2015 at 6:00 am
  19. Linda

    If someone is sick, got hurt. Bad news type stuff staying bless your heart shows true empathy. If someone is basically a fibber, notorious for BS, (we all know who these people are) then you say, “ahhh, bless your heart!” Which really means I don’t know what to say to your BS that you are handing me yet again. I’m not that stupid. Or simply you are saying Screw Off in a really sweet tone. I kinda like to sing it. And make the word heart into 3 syllables. Another one is, “have a blessed day.” That can go both ways too. You know, at work you get a call from someone that asks really silly questions & is just painful, right before you hang up say, “now you have a blessed day!” In reality you are saying, thanks fior wasting my time you dumb a**. Cute read, thanks for sharing, hope you truly have a blessed day!

    July 23, 2015 at 5:40 am
  20. Jimmy Burrell

    Living in the South my whole life (I am over 40), I have noticed the expression “Bless your heart.” is primarily used by the older generations, 50+ and mostly by women. I make an effort to not say it because some who make a habit of it are not always sincere and could lead to some hurt feelings if taken the wrong way. Northerners, or people who were not born Southern, should not try to change their dialect or accent because people from the South can spot it a mile away and may think they are making fun, no matter how long they have lived in the South. There are still hard feelings between people in America in this age group that hasn’t changed since the Civil War and probably will never change. My visits to New York and other Northern states proved to me we will always be different in how we talk and use slang. Besides, in some of my first conversations in Manhattan, I had to ask what “pop” was since we call it “a drink” down South. One of my favorite things to hear up North was when someone said “Forget about it.” I tried to mimic the way that expression is pronounced up North and failed miserably. So, honey, if you want to sound Southern after not being born in the South, fawgeddaboudit.😉

    July 23, 2015 at 3:27 am
  21. Lori

    I’ve been sitting here saying it (in its many forms) in my head to see if I can describe the differences in the tones and meanings of “Bless your heart,” and “Bless her/his heart,” and “Bless it” – a personal favorite. In the case of the first two, it is the inflection on the word “heart” that conveys the most meaning. If the tone goes down at the end of phase, it is more sympathetic – “She lost her puppy, bless her heart.” If the tone wings up at the end, there’s still some sympathy in there, but it’s more of a verbal head-shake – “She’s gone and lost her mind, bless her heart.” I think it would be really interesting if someone could record Southern women using this phrase, in all its connotations. Maybe it would all sound the same to someone born outside the South, but we’d hear all that isn’t said. Nice or naughty, I always smile when I say it and when I hear it. I work virtually with a lot of Yankees each day, and they think it’s completely negative or always meant with veiled derision. I try to refrain from using it, but it just slips out now and then. Someone else talked about the frustration of having to use more words to convey meaning when speaking to Northerners, and she’s right. “I’m sorry you got a ticket for speeding on your way to work because you were running late, but maybe you should leave earlier, since you’ve been late every day this week,” takes so much more time to say than “Bless your heart.”

    July 23, 2015 at 2:25 am
  22. Dori

    It depends on the context and inflection. It’s kinda of like “OMG shut up” and “no seriously, shut up” said sympatheticly it means “you poor dear” but sarcastically it means ” she is dumber than a bag of rocks”

    July 23, 2015 at 2:04 am
  23. Kay McGehee Jolly

    My credentials: Born in Mississippi, reared in Louisiana. Husband is from South Carolina. First, “Bless your heart!” can NOT be reduced to only TWO meanings! And like many Southern expressions, it conveys much varied content with few words. The meaning depends upon the intent of the heart of the speaker, conveyed with his/her tone of voice, facial expressions, and inflections. Also, it matters to whom the speaker is addressing. It matters if the speaker is delivering it to the intended recipient, directly in person, or if it is being said about an absent party. A primary factor is the type of relationship the speaker has with the recipient. Does the speaker like and/or care about recipient? Or is the speaker a jealous rival? Also, we Southern Women love to tease and be facetious with our nearest and dearest. If my best friend who often copies my style since we were 8, says, “Bless your heart, where DID you buy those tacky shoes!?!” I know she means she loves them and is going right out to buy herself a pair! A primary use of the phrase is to express compassion and/or understanding. Even if it is compassion/awareness that the person behaved recklessly, senselessly, illegally, ignorantly, etc. And of course, it expresses sympathy. All levels of sympathy from losing a loved one to seeing a bad hair-do. You are at a disadvantage because you only recently moved to the South, and have little history with the folks around you. You may not know their intent towards you or their intent towards the recipient of the phrase. Bless your heart. What do I mean towards you? Well, I am expressing experiential understanding, compassion, and empathy because I moved to Indiana 19 years ago, and knew no one here. No history with anyone. I walk in your shoes. Different culture on many levels. I know what you are going through. They think I talk funny, up
    here, and are surprised to learn I speak in complete sentences. I find it taxing to have to use many words to convey what a Southern expression conveys in seconds. Here, my use means I understand your immersion into an unknown regional culture. May I suggest you watch the speaker’s eyes to help you read his/her intent? Are they twinkling? Or are they kind of empty, harsh? Are the lips smiling or sneering a little? Do you see/receive a little hug, pat on the arm, a sigh, a giggle? Or do you get distance, arms crossed, down, or back, with an ever-so-slight tilt of the head backwards so he/she is looking down his/her nose at you? Once you get more experiences under your belt, you will immediately tell by the tone of voice the deliverer’s intent. Another usage is if one hearing a conversation that turns to gossiping or disparaging someone who is not present, and one doesn’t want to join in, one can deliver the phrase and excuse oneself. There are many more uses. A favorite use of mine is when I am surprised by words and behavior and and am expected to make a comment. This buys me some time to collect my thoughts instead of exclaiming, “Are you nuts!?!” And I have been on the receiving end, as well. Like the time my best friend since childhood was on the phone with me when I turned the oven on without checking inside and it caught on fire. She exclaimed, “Bless your heart!” when the I discovered it and hollered. I knew she meant, “You are about to burn your house down! Find out what’s wrong with you!?!” She had me laughing like only she could do! Turned out, my HVAC had been installed improperly in my new house and I was slowly dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Getting out of this house, 10 days later, to fly to her funeral in Louisiana saved my life, I later learned. After I was properly diagnosed and saved. Bless her heart! This time, it means I love her and miss her fiercely and I know she is laughing with me, still. By the way, a shopping cart will always be a “buggy” to me, no matter how many stares and snickers I get when I used the word up here. Bless their hearts!

    July 23, 2015 at 1:39 am
  24. Marlene Ravey

    When said directly to you, Bless your Heart, is almost always a genuine feeling of compassion or solidarity with the one being blessed. But when said about another person, usually with a derogatory comment immediately following–well, bless your heart, you’re getting the idea. 😉

    July 23, 2015 at 12:03 am
  25. Laura Hastings-Brownstein

    Come on! Context is everything. Words that have only one meaning or connotation are rare in human language. I would think any educated person would know that.

    July 22, 2015 at 11:39 pm
  26. Jenine

    It means you poor thang ….like I was late to work today..bless your heart…you need to get up earlier goofus..or I didn’t get my raise or promotion. ..coworker well bless your heart neither did I..you poor thang if you would get off the phone and actually work..my mama passed away a year ago today…bless your heart….it is genuine. I always say well bless your pea pickin heart…I’m being sarcastic..well thats my way of interpreting bless your heart and I am an Okie. And just because someone calls you sweetie sugar or honey dosen’t mean they are being friendly. It’s more like sugar if you don’t get outa my face I’m going to bust your pea picken ass. Maybe that’s only where I come from and I say over yonder and who dat. I love talking to real okies they understand everthing I’m saying. Spoke to some Canadians they couldn’t understand a word I was saying but bless their heart I couldn’t under what they were eaying either.

    July 22, 2015 at 11:32 pm
  27. Nell Croissant

    If you have something bad happen to you and soneone says it, it means the same as saying you’re sorry it happened. If you are with a friend and see someone who is really ugly is crippled or hurt, it means they have your sympathy because they can’t help it. If someone comes up to you with a BS story looking for sympathy they don’t deserve, and then you say it, it’s a nice way of saying you’re a jerk and I hope you get what’s coming to you.

    July 22, 2015 at 11:12 pm
  28. Andrea N

    Context is key!

    July 22, 2015 at 10:08 pm
  29. Judy savoy

    I am 68 years old and I’ve said Bless Your Heart all my life…..It means what it says BLESS YOUR HEART,,I’ve never been a mean girl, so so figure, anyone would want to question BYH.😔

    July 22, 2015 at 8:52 pm
  30. Janice

    When I lived in the south I found it could be used both ways. You could say ANYTHING, about someone as long as you ended it with Vless her heart. Such as, that is the ugliest baby I have ever seen, bless his heart. Watch out for southern women. Their tongues are lethal.

    July 22, 2015 at 8:41 pm
  31. Donna Altman

    I am a 48 year old southern female. I will tell you that it is never an insult. It always shows concern, genuine amazement and sometimes gratitude. For instance, when someone tells me how terrible their day was I may say, bless your heart. That is genuine sympathy and concern. If someone rants and raves because a cop had the audacity to give them a ticket for driving 20 mph over the speed limit, I may look at them and say, bless your heart….. I would be thinking that it is amazing that they are so thick and I guess being amazed and concerned may seem like an insult but it all comes back to southern folk are not supposed to say anything if they can’t say anything nice. I am truly sorry this is such a puzzle for you…. Bless your heart

    July 22, 2015 at 8:33 pm
  32. Amy

    Bless your heart, honey. Welcome to the South. We’re glad to have you! (. This is a genuine welcoming blessing and a warm- hearted welcome)

    July 22, 2015 at 8:02 pm
  33. Sunshine

    Well I live in upstate S.C. and generally speaking “bless your heart” is a way of showing sympathy. However, if you hear someone say or do something rather stupid you will get a “bless it”. Interpreted as “Lord bless that fool because they surely need divine help.”

    July 22, 2015 at 7:43 pm
  34. Jennifer

    Bless YOUR heart is usually sympathetic. Bless HER heart is usually a veiled insult. In the case of someone who is sick, it is almost always used sincerely.

    July 22, 2015 at 7:28 pm
  35. Joni

    If it is used with bless her or his heart, it is usually an insult. If it is bless YOUR heart, it is generally sincere.

    July 22, 2015 at 7:10 pm
  36. Wanda Watts McLeod

    It definitely depends on context and tone.

    July 22, 2015 at 6:52 pm
  37. Melissa

    Bless Your Heart, said directly to someone is sympathy, “You missed the bus, bless your heart.” When you bless a third person’s heart, you’re softening a criticism, “She never is on time for the bus, bless her heart.”

    July 22, 2015 at 5:53 pm
  38. Johnny

    I also blew off a party after not being able to find parking in SF after an hour of driving in circles. Bless My Stupid Heart for waiting that long.

    July 22, 2015 at 5:15 pm
  39. Rhonda

    It’s not an insult…unless it is. For instance. Bless your heart, I heard your mama’s been down and you’ve been taking care of her and your daddy!” Not an insult. Instance number 2: You mean he kicked your dog, stole your money, ate the last GooGoo, and you STILL took him back? Bless your heart… sigh…

    July 22, 2015 at 5:09 pm
  40. Porter Ranch Mom

    Raised by a true Southern Belle, I’d say it is used both ways. It depends on the context of the conversation and to whom it is being said. Rather than be considered crass and straight forward, insults are cloaked in wit and humour. Nuances such as this allow Southerns to say something without gaving to “say it.” As the great line goes…”but you didn’t hear that ftom me!”

    July 22, 2015 at 5:03 pm
  41. Connie

    I was born and raised in Georgia and it can definitely be used as both! But most of the time when I use it, it is NOT an insult. When I say it to someone, I am really concerned about their situation or trial that they have gone through. In fact I have very rarely used it despairingly. Just a southern woman’s input!

    July 22, 2015 at 4:48 pm
  42. Jan

    A true, gentile Southerner does not use “bless your heart” in a derogatory or insulting way. If they say something, they mean it.

    July 22, 2015 at 4:46 pm
  43. Kathryn from the South

    I met some Northerners who migrated south many years ago,and learned that their use of “Bless yah haht” was almost always sarcastic and condescending.

    July 22, 2015 at 4:08 pm
  44. Melody Collins

    What “Bless Your Heart” means is entirely a matter of context and tone. Many true Southerners will use the expression to convey sympathy or understanding (“Bless your heart, you’ve had such a terrible year”), but it can also hint at something not as nice, depending on what comes next. This may be even more true when in reference to someone not in the conversation, eg, “Bless her heart, she did the best she could,” or “Bless her heart, she wouldn’t recognize an insult if it fell on her head.” Because it’s so open to interpretation, I don’t the expression that much. . . unless in the company of close friends and family who I am confident will know exactly what I mean.

    July 22, 2015 at 3:56 pm
  45. Whitney

    I have never used it as an insult when talking directly to the person, however, I use it as a bit of a snark when talking to someone about said person. Example: “I saw Katie-Ann today, she’s still living at home, she can’t find a husband to save her life, bless her heart!”. If I say it talking to someone, I genuinely mean it. I bless a lot of hearts each day in the most sincere way🙂

    July 22, 2015 at 3:55 pm

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