Bless Your Heart!

heart“Bless your heart!”

The urban dictionary and my not-Southern friends tell me that these words are the way Southerners tell a person that he or she is a fool without actually saying so.

This grieves me.

I grew up using this phrase to express genuine sympathy. There may be parts of the Southeast US where people use it sarcastically, but I guess I’m from a different part of the South. Or maybe I’m such a fool that I didn’t realize it was sarcasm.

It springs to my lips when a friend tells me that they have cancer, or that their dog died. I know I can’t do or say anything that will fix things. All I can do is express my solidarity with their situation, and those are the words with which I learned to do it. The phrase springs directly from my own heart to theirs: “Bless your heart!”

In good times, a blessing is a celebration of the good. In bad times, it is a fervent wish for better times. In Jewish tradition, it is a pause in the flood of experience to stop, to pay attention, to be present.

I think the world would be a better place if we blessed each other more often.

So know that if I say to you, “Bless your heart!” I’m not being sarcastic. I’m just the kind of fool that loves blessings.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

18 thoughts on “Bless Your Heart!”

  1. I’ve never heard it used in a nasty way… horrible! Im wondering how it could possibly have come to have that meaning?

  2. I lived in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee for a few years – yes, indeed, “Bless your heart” is an essential part of what I call the Southern veneer of gentility.

    1. Can you say more, Jeff – in what contexts was it used and by whom? Gender? Class? Was the person using it conscious of using it that way, or did they think they were being sympathetic?

  3. I was born in Texas, live in Texas and will probably die in Texas. I use the phrase “well bless your heart” ALL the time. It’s used by me when I hear some horrible thing has happened to someone or their loved ones, including pets. I feel such overwhelming feelings that this is the first thing that pops out of my mouth (or through my fingers on the keyboard). Then I can go on to tell them, if I have the words, how I feel for them, toward them and/or what my prayer to God is for them.

    The ONLY time I’ve heard it used to mock others is on TV shows NOT made in Texas or the South.

    1. Your usage matches mine, survivor55. That about “overwhelming feelings” is spot on.

      Yet this must have gotten started somehow. I am horrified to think that when I use it, someone might think I am mocking them.

    2. Interestingly, I have never heard it used here in Austin…which some folks would argue isn’t Texas, anyway. It was used extensively in SC, and always in the context of someone having done something stupid/messing up. I never heard it as a positive.

      1. Since Austin is our capitol, I’d say it DEFINITELY is part of Texas!! HA!! 😀

        I’m sorry you heard only the negativity that apparently has come to surround what I grew up knowing and using as a truly heartfelt way to express something that was too deep for other words to convey to a friend, or even a stranger with whom you strike up a conversation, who’s going through a horrible situation — death of a loved one, disease, car wreck, etc.

        I’ve also used it when someone shows me either pictures of or I meet in person their pets or children or grandchildren. I’ll say, “Well bless his/her heart!! Isn’t he/she just precious!!” or something similar.

        Maybe the rabbi’s right and it’s a regional thing or maybe it’s the family, congregation and close friends you were raised up around when you were a child. I just don’t know. It just makes me sad to think of something I know as being only good to be used as evil.

  4. Having been born in and grown up in the southeast, I can tell you that “bless your heart” is meant with all sincerity. Since I’ve moved, I’ve had some Mid-westerners try to convince me that it was negative as well but I’ve not ever heard it said in a negative way. So “Bless your heart” Rabbi Adar!!

  5. My wife is from Knoxville. The first time, when we were visiting her home town from our home in NJ, someone said that to me, I thanked them. When we walked out, my wife laughed and informed me that I just thanked someone for insulting me! I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d tried

    1. It’s such a subtle thing that unless you are part of the culture, it can be hard to spot. I’m sure you are a nice person and I’m sorry they weren’t nice back (even if they weren’t nice via the nicest words possible!)

      1. Remembering growing up in Glasgow, working class area, variations of that were used, such as, “Aw, bless his wee heart!/Bless your wee cotton socks”or just, on it’s own, “Bless!” ….all used to express something kind, or positive, often when a child said something unintentionally funny, and endearing, or when someone was kind. Never, ever sarcastic. I really hate( and I hate using the word hate….which sounds weird, but hope you understand what I mean)…. I really hate the idea of the word “bless”being deliberately used in any other way than a good one.

        Just as an afterthought….and this sheds light on me, I guess: before I became observant, I used to feel extremely uncomfortable whenever anyone said “G-d bless/you” to me, or “I’ll pray for you”( and these days, I try to ask first if it’s ok with someone, if I remember them in my prayers(unless theres been a specific request for prayers) That’s just me, though, and part of my messed up journey to get to where I am…

        1. I”m with you, Alex, I can’t use the word “bless” with anything but a positive intention. However, it does seem to take on extra shades of meaning in some places.

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