`Bless your heart'—a grandmother's benediction or a caress that comes with a punch

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2006 

WASHINGTON—If you believe that everything nice-sounding is sincere, well, bless your heart.

It sounded simple enough when Donita Mize's grandmother used it. "She'd say, `Bless your pea-picking heart,' when I was little and she was teaching us how to can," said Mize, of Sullivan, Ind.

Like a sweet candy with a sour center, "bless your heart" can cloak a tart surprise, however. That's likeliest in the South, where good manners and irony flourish together like clematis among roses and wielding the phrase creatively can be an art form.

Celia Rivenbark of Wilmington, N.C., the author of a book of Southernisms titled "Bless Your Heart, Tramp," offered some pungent examples. For instance, "You know, it's amazing that even though she had that baby seven months after they got married, bless her heart, it weighed 10 pounds!"

Or: "If brains were dynamite, he wouldn't have enough to ruffle his hair, bless his heart."

Jill Connor Browne of Madison, Miss., another writer on Southern manners and usage, explained the phrase's power: "We can say absolutely the vilest things that come into our mind about another person and yet still leave the listener with the impression of our unfailing sweetness."

Allison Burkette, a sociolinguist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, offered this statement as an example: "Well, John, bless his little heart, tries as hard as he can, but just can't seem to pass math."

Her translation: "John's too dumb to do much in the way of mathematics."

Despite its Southern flavor, "bless your heart" got its start in English literature, according to linguist Joan Hall, the editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English. The earliest usage in print is in Henry Fielding's 1732 play "The Miser." In it, a butler says of a new mistress who's bought beer for the domestic staff, "Bless her heart! Good lady! I wish she had a better bridegroom."

Novelist Charles Dickens liked the phrase, too. "Why, it's old Fezziwig! Bless his heart, it's Fezziwig, alive again!" Scrooge declares in "A Christmas Carol."

Today, the usage is so predominantly Southern that Charles Wilson, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, calls it "an in-term" that shows that the speaker is from the South.

Rivenbark agreed. "If I hear someone from the North use this expression, it makes my skin crawl," she said.

The usage is mainly by women. "I don't think I've ever heard a man use it," said Anne Randolph, of Washington, whose family has lived in Virginia for more generations than she's counted. Nor do women she knows use the phrase insincerely, she said.

That doesn't apply to politicians, said John Monk, a reporter for the newspaper The State, in Columbia, S.C.

"I think (former Sen.) Jesse Helms said it to me once when he meant `I want to kill you and squish you like a bug,'" Monk said.

The indirectness of an insult wrapped in kindness "really expresses the Southern way of doing things so well," Wilson said. "It's part of the system of manners in the South."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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