Archive for August 25th, 2011

Bless Your Heart

Little Old Lady

Photo by Shamrockinc, Photobucket

Texas, being the rather large place that it is, has elements of both the South and the West. South Texas, where I lived for twenty years before moving to Colorado, is actually more Western, but I did manage to pick up a few southernisms during my time there. One of them is the phrase “bless her/his heart.”

For those of you not familiar with it, “bless his/her heart” is a phrase southerners use to take the sting out of the most biting insults. So, for example, you might say, “Joe Bob Briggs doesn’t have the sense God gave a turnip.” Pretty harsh, right? And possibly fairly accurate. But if you say, “Joe Bob Briggs doesn’t have the sense God gave a turnip, bless his heart” that somehow makes ol’ Joe Bob seem less like a mouth-breathing moron and more like one of those lovable small-town eccentrics so prevalent in places like Konigsburg.

It’s also a sort of sneaky way to get around any objections that Joe Bob or his supporters might care to make. You didn’t exactly call him a moron, after all—not exactly. On the other hand, you haven’t really declared yourself a member of Joe Bob’s fan club. You’re just making an observation about Joe Bob’s intellect, but bless his heart shows you really don’t mean to be critical. Just honest.

Now I grew up in the Midwest, which is well-known as the Land of Nice. Midwestern girls and boys are taught that you should never make anybody feel bad, that you should always be nice even if you’re dealing with somebody who isn’t very nice in return. If worse comes to worst, you become very cool and correct, but you never descend to nasty.

But “bless his heart” isn’t nasty—not exactly. It allows you to say what you’re really thinking—he’s an idiot, she’s an airhead, they’re a rotten couple—without getting hammered for saying it. It’s like a Get Out Of Jail Free card. You can be bitchy without really having to pay the price.

Still, once you’ve played the “bless his heart” card, you’ve made it pretty clear where you stand. It’s not like “just kidding”—you’re not really taking your insult back. Instead, you’re saying that you do in fact think Joe Bob is a moron but that, gosh darn it, he just can’t help himself, can he.

So then the question becomes, how do you defend yourself against the “bless your heart” offense? And the answer is, you don’t. You can’t be insulted unless you want to come off as a sorehead. And if you throw a “bless your heart” back at the speaker, you just come off as sort of desperate. You might get by with laughing—that’s probably what I’d have a a character like Docia Kent Toleffson do if anybody had the temerity to bless her heart. A really devious Southern belle might let her eyes pool with picturesque tears and her lower lip trembling ominously, but that could come off as overkill. I guess in the end, if anybody says anything to you along the lines of “bless your heart,” you should probably just smile weakly and duck.

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