September 16, 2011
There’s a persistent misconception regarding a particular Southern expression, "Bless your heart". A lot of people seem to be of the belief that this expression means, "You’re an idiot", or at least that it’s an insult disguised as a blessing. And sometimes this is true, so at least it’s not as bad as the belief that some Yankees and other aliens have that "y’all" is used to address a single person. People who think that, bless their hearts, don’t realize that "y’all" is a contraction of "you all", and is used to correct the English language’s lack of a second person plural. Whenever I hear someone from, say, Chicago use "y’all" to address a single person I want to ask them if they’d say "youse guys" in the same situation. Not that there’s anything wrong with addressing a group as "guys". I’ve often addressed groups of friends in which two or sometimes more genders were represented as "guys", and no one’s ever complained. Not like the time I met a woman who, like me, was left-handed, and I said, "Hey, nice to meet you, left-handed brother!" And she said, "Whaddya mean, ‘brother’?" and grabbed my arm and twisted it around my back while I screamed "Sister! I meant sister!" But she didn’t let up until I cried uncle.
Anyway, the expression "Bless your heart" can be used as an insult but, as with many things, it depends on the context. If someone speaks of a cousin, for instance, who has a habit of cleaning his guns while they’re still loaded or who once lit a match while looking for a gas leak in his basement and says, "Bless his heart, he’s going to win a Darwin Award someday," that’s an insult. On the other hand it was an expression frequently used by my grandmother, to whom sarcasm was a foreign language and who I don’t think ever wished harm on another person in her entire life. And she’d always say it when she heard about another person’s misfortune. "Bless their heart," she’d say, and I believe she meant it sincerely and without any trace of meanness, which is probably why I can’t come up with a better example of someone using the expression sarcastically. My grandmother was Southern, but, destroying another misconception frequently held by Yankees, she was not one of those stereotypical Southern women who spend most of their time trying to find ways to say the meanest things they can think of in the sweetest and most unassuming voices they can produce. Actually the only place I’ve ever encountered women like that is on television or in the movies.
So if you tell a Southerner you’ve had a bad day, that you were late for the bus, got splashed by a car while waiting for the next bus, went home to change and discovered you’d locked your keys inside, that you were looking for a rock or brick to break a window to get back in when you were chased up onto your roof by a lion that had escaped from the local zoo, got hit with one of the tranquilizer darts that the zookeepers were firing at the lion, woke up in the hospital, picked up your pants, and discovered that your keys were in your other pocket, and they say, "Bless your heart," you can be assured that they mean that honestly and sincerely. And if they don’t, if, in fact, they’re saying it sarcastically, you have the right to grab their arm and twist it around behind their back until they cry uncle.