The saying “bless your heart” is a mighty useful, multi-faceted expression with a wide range of meanings, used chiefly by both men and women south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is a phrase which permits them to talk out of both sides of their mouths. Personally, I’ve “blessed hearts” for years and have noticed that most of my friends and family do, too. When a compliment is paid or a great kindness done, it is certainly appropriate to utter, “Well, bless your heart” which is no doubt followed by a string of adjectives suitable to the situation which imply, “Thank you for being so nice, clever, thoughtful, smart, kind, dear, unselfish, and just this side of being a Christian martyr.”
Unfortunately, often the profuse type of “heart-blessing” is not altogether sincere. This is precisely why the expression is so handy and versatile. It masks insincerity and even downright meanness. Usually the mean-type-heart-blessing is preceded by an attitude of piety accompanied by a “tsk, tsk clucking” and a slow negative shaking of the head. “Did you hear about Delhia Jane? Bless her heart, her husband hasn’t drawn a sober breath or a paycheck since the Lord knows when (sigh) and he just up and left her here with all those children to raise.”
No one is exempt from having his heart blessed: an immediate family member, a friend, a neighbor, an acquaintance, or a distant relative. Of course, there are other phrases which tend to put down one’s fellowman equally well, such as “God love her,” which implies wearily that no one else could. Then there’s “poor thing” and “it’s a shame.” But genuine down-putters and southern folks tend to favor blessing hearts.
There’s no way sociologists can explain the practice of blessing hearts any more than they can explain “I don’t care to,” which means, “I’ll be glad to; don’t mind a bit and accept with pleasure whatever it is you’re asking to be done.” It’s also difficult for “foreigners” to understand that the fathers of Harlan County children aren’t artists when told that their dads “draw” for a living.
Ah, words and phrases make the art of communication zesty and out of the mundane. Blessing hearts fits right into that mold and is unique to the south. If you have read this far, well…bless your heart!