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August 22, 2006 3:00 AM

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

If you believe that everything nice-sounding is sincere, well, bless your heart. It sounded simple enough when Donita Mizes grandmother used it. Shed 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. Thats 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.

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