“Bless your heart!” One might cringe at the deliverance of these words – especially if you’re on the receiving end of them – given that this particular phrase has more than one connotation.
As good southerners, we all know that “bless your heart” can be used to sincerely empathize with someone in a poor situation, but on the inverse, we’re also highly aware that this can be one of the most biting of remarks – all said with a smile, of course.
Even the Cambridge Dictionary has a textbook definition of the phrase, noting that it’s “used to show affection or sympathy for someone else.” Pity that Cambridge is a bit far removed from southern culture and slangs.
What could be a nice “well, bless you’re heart, you can’t seem to catch a break,” is distinctly different from that of a backhanded blessing that really means, “you’re not the brightest bulb in the box, are you?” And it would appear it takes being raised within our southern realm to tell the difference.
It’s not uncommon for confusion to ensue when people from other regions of the United States venture into southern borders, oftentimes mistaking “bless your heart” as a sweet means of communication. It isn’t until they later become accustomed to the south’s home-grown sayings that they’re able to pick up on the differing gists.
Regardless of its intent, however, we still know how to politely scrutinize others, which could be construed as a positive.
Curiously enough, “ bless your heart” has a fairly vague origin, giving clout to the idea that the evolution of this particular colloquialism is uniquely that of the southern vernacular – elaborating on cunning definitions and all.
Author Mark Twain, a Missouri man, employs a bit of snark with his usage of “bless your heart” in The Gilded Age. After a drawn out conversation, or rather disagreement, a definitive statement highlights “Just stop and fancy a moment – just think a little – don’t anything suggest itself? Bless your heart, you dear women live right in the present all the time – but a man, why a man lives.”
This particular tale was co-penned with Charles Dudley Wright, with the intent to provide both Twain’s and Wright’s wives with a story that they were “used to reading.” Clearly, the pair saw the humor in crafting a slice of life, with slangs and common speech included.
Ely Portillo and Sadia Latifi, writers with Chron, seem to support this notion that “bless your heart” can take on more than one meaning. They reported that the phrase “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.’”
Fielding himself was a humorist, taking pride is his satirical notions. It would appear that he understood the undertone of a good “bless your heart,” even in the 1700s. Hailing from Sharpham, United Kingdom, perhaps that underlying tone of pity, or even condescension, made its way over with the pilgrims.
Of course, blessing someone’s heart has its root in literally just that. From sneezes that make the human heart skip a beat and the understanding that if the old ticker stops ticking you’re in trouble, naturally speaking out a blessing to someone’s heart is a sincerely meant sentiment.
While the history books provide little insight as to where “bless your heart” came from, it seems from its documented beginnings that humor was involved.
Today, the south is pretty well-known for a whole slew of colloquialisms with peculiar, but distinct meanings, however none so much as “bless your heart.” Just Google it, we’ve earned quite the reputation for that one.