There is a phrase that a woman can deploy like a verbal stiletto. It's increasingly dangerous to use, because many people are catching on to the phrase's true meaning. You've got a decent shot at sneaking it by folks who aren't from the South, but more and more, you try unloading it on anyone at all in America and you risk their knowing: them's fighting words.
I come here today to praise the phrase "bless your heart," and also to bury it.
You see, "bless your heart" has gone mainstream as the worst thing a woman whose favorite movie is Steel Magnolias could ever possibly say about a person. A few months after I started working at Jezebel, I dropped one, and Wisconsin-born Erin Gloria Ryan responded: "I knew you were going to use it eventually, and I knew it would be devastating." It's too bad that people have caught onto this, because it was once a tremendously flexible phrase, meaning anything from "Wow, she is just a real mess," all the way to "I loathe the very sight of her and spit on her ancestors' graves, and I'd think more seriously about murdering her if it weren't the case that stabbing someone at a cocktail party is frowned upon."
But "bless your heart" isn't an automatic insult, either. It could very well mean "That is a terrible thing that happened to you and I'm genuinely sorry you're dealing with it." Say your friend's car broke down on her way to church and her cell phone was dead and she had to walk three miles (unpaved) in her nice pumps before finding help. She had a rough day, bless her heart.
You could also bless the hearts of friends who've done something a little silly but nevertheless deserve sympathy, like the girl who accepts some dude's invite to go inner-tubing without realizing that it takes several hours longer than he's predicted and they'll run out of beer and get sunburnt and as it's getting dark she'll be forced to climb out of the river via my parents' boat ramp and wander the poison-ivy-infested woods until finding my mother to ask for a ride back to the truck so she can pick up the aforementioned foolish dude and his now-empty cooler. That girl just didn't know, bless her heart.
It also functions nicely as a smokescreen for shameless gossip. As one confidant put it: "You can tell an entire lurid life story over a bridge table, relishing every misadventure. She's been through so much. Bless her heart." It's a means of covering your ass, or your bad intentions. Sometimes you want to call a third party a fucking fool, but you can't let it get back to them that "so-and-so called you a fucking fool." It's a way to speak frankly while making clear that you don't want to go nuclear over the fact that she just never arrives at the PTA meeting any less than an hour late. "Bless your heart" is like storing something radioactive in lead. You say what you were going to say, but you package it carefully as to protect yourself from becoming a player in this little drama. Bless her heart. Butter wouldn't melt in your mouth!
By far the most dangerous "bless your heart" usage—a situation requiring absolute mastery—is when you want to call someone a goddamn idiot straight to their face. You can't just come right out and call them a goddamn idiot; that would take us to DefCon 1. You want to stay comfortably at DefCon 3, but you also feel you cannot allow idiocy to go unremarked upon, because then it'll just run rampant. So you hit them with the "bless your heart," which basically translates to "It's a good thing for you God looks after the lilies of the field because the way you're acting you'd be up shit creek without literal divine intervention."
Alternatively, "bless your heart" could serve as the long fuse to an insult that takes just long enough to detonate that your victim misses her moment to respond before she even realizes what's happening, at which point you'll be long sailed off to refill your highball glass. "You always seem to have the worst luck picking husbands, bless your heart."
These last instances are very rare. To see one in the wild is to witness a thing of vicious and terrible beauty.
Like many socially weighted expressions, "bless his/her/your heart" doesn't really mean anything when stripped of context. It's neutral. It's inert. Its meaning lies in the situation and the personalities involved and the dynamics of the moment. It is wholly contingent. It could be genuine; it could be a putdown. And that's exactly what makes it such a blistering insult. As my colleague the Right Honorable Shade Court Judge Kara Brown has explained regarding shade, it's the insult that presses your existing buttons that does the most damage. Or, as Dorien Corey put it in Paris is Burning: "Shade is, I don't tell you you're ugly, but I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly."
Everyone knows the score in a game of blessing hearts. "Bless your heart" evolved in the kind of places where everybody knows everybody's people and always has. But it requires the double meaning to work properly. It thrives in the space between what something could mean and what you can be absolutely certain it means. Like shade, the blessing is a mine field defined by subtlety, and the more common the knowledge, the harder it is for the concept's nuance to survive. Given how shamelessly people conflate shade and outright insult, I'm skeptical that mainstream America has the linguistic abilities to handle it.
Bless their little hearts.
Illustration by Jim Cooke