‘Bless Your Heart’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on August 2, 2023

Did someone say  'bless your heart' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

'Bless your heart' is a common phrase in the American South that can have a number of different meanings depending on the tone and context. In some cases, it is used to convey genuine appreciation or empathy. In others, it can be used as a tool of condescension.

What Does 'Bless Your Heart' Mean?

‘Bless your heart’ is a common expression in the Southern US. It can be used either to express genuine sympathy and appreciation or as a way to insult another person by conveying contempt, derision, or condescension. In some instances, it will be used before another insult in order to tone down the severity of the slight.

It’s interesting just how many different connotations this short phrase can bring about. The message behind the phrase really has to do with how it is said.

It can be:

  • A sincere expression of endearment, good wishes, fondness, affection, or sympathy
  • A way of excusing someone’s perceived shortcomings or forgiving mistakes
  • An insult that is condescending

Where Does 'Bless Your Heart' Come From?

The phrase 'bless your heart' goes back generations in the American South. There are also variations of the phrase, including 'bless your pea-pickin' heart.'

Though it is most commonly associated with the Southern U.S., it actually seems that it originates outside of the States.

The Phrase in 18th-Century British Plays

The earliest known use of this phrase shows up in "The Padlock," a British play that was written in 1766. A comic opera by Charles Dibdin, it appeared in the Royal Theater two years after it was written in 1768.

In the first act, a servant says the following:

"Ah, Massa, bless your heart.”

Another play from 1787, titled "He Would Be a Soldier," has the following line:

“Cal. Bless your heart! no master of any kind for me to-day: I never put on a new suit of clothes in my life, that I did not make holyday.”

The Phrase in the late 18th and 19th Centuries

We find the phrase again in Oliver Goldsmith's "Stoop the Conquer" as well as Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol. The first example from a U.S. publication shows up in an issue of Religious Intelligencer from 1826:

“She was then asked, if she understood all that she read? “Bless your heart,” answered she, “I am a poor ignorant creature, and have no book of knowledge …” 

Interestingly, this publication isn't from the South but, instead, from New Haven, Connecticut. Actually, all of the printings of this phrase in the U.S. were from the northern states until 1857, when the following shows up in a Richmond, VA publication called The Southern Literary Messenger:

“Oh, bless his heart! Come to your mammy, my darling boy! Bless your heart! Bless your heart! Where has mammy’s baby been?”

The Phrase in the Antebellum South

The phrase became increasingly common over time, with 'bless your heart' frequently used in novels throughout the 20th century.

It is thought that the phrase was first popularized by slaves in the South before the Civil War. The tradition of using this expression has carried forward to the present day.

Examples of 'Bless Your Heart' In Sentences

How would 'bless your heart' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "Bless her heart. She spent the entire day lying in bed, sick with the flu. I'm going to bring her some chicken soup and ginger ale."
  • "Ms. Adams is from the south, so "bless your heart" comes out of her mouth practically every other sentence.
  • "Sarah, I asked you to bring the clothes here so we could get ready for the party without going home first. Well, bless your heart. I guess we'll make one more stop before we head over."
  • "I heard about his diagnosis-- bless his heart. I only wish there was something I could do to help him and his family during this difficult time."
  • "I used to think that Mrs. Johnson was being sweet when she said, "bless your heart." After all these years, I'm shocked to realize she was being condescending."
  • "Bless your heart, Allie, but I really think you're jumping the gun here. You and your boyfriend have only been together a few months. Maybe wait a little longer before deciding to tie the knot."
  • "Mr. Jacobs ends every email with "bless your heart." I used to think it was odd, but now I think it's really endearing."

Other Ways to Say 'Bless Your Heart'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'bless your heart'?

Here are some options when it comes to the genuine expression of sympathy, concern, or appreciation:

  • You're in my thoughts
  • My heart goes out to you
  • Wishing you well
  • Sending you good vibes
  • You're in my prayers
  • Sending you positive energy

If you want to use a phrase similar to 'bless your heart' in its more passive-aggressive context, here are some choices:

  • How charming
  • Aren't you just a special one?
  • You never fail to amaze me.
  • I admire your optimism.

How to Respond to ‘Bless Your Heart’

One of the things that’s tricky about this phrase is that it can convey a number of different potential meanings that fall all over the spectrum.

Here's a quick reference guide if you aren't sure how to respond when someone says 'bless your heart':

  • If it's spoken quietly or with a whisper: When someone says 'bless his/her heart' about someone else in a whisper, the purpose is often slightly (if not lightheartedly) conspiratorial. Usually, a smile or even a light chuckle is the right response.
  • If it's said sweetly and empathetically: If it's clear that the phrase is being used in an expression of concern or empathy, you can say, "thank you, ma'am/sir." When someone uses the phrase this way, they reach out to you with kindness and courtesy.
  • If it's said with a sassy attitude: The phrase is also often used to imply some judgment from the speaker even if they have your best interest in mind. Though it's tempting to say something sassy back, it's usually best to smile and change the topic of conversation.
  • If it's said neutrally: Sometimes, this phrase can indicate that the person you're speaking with doesn't have anything else to say on the subject. In this case, it's best to change the subject!

Final Thoughts About 'Bless Your Heart'

'Bless your heart' is a fascinating phrase that can have different meanings depending on the tone it is spoken with and the context in which it appears. One person might say 'bless your heart' to share that they are genuinely empathetic with you, while another uses a different tone in order to condescend to you.

For this reason, it's important to be very careful with your tone if you choose to incorporate 'bless your heart' into your vocabulary. Even though it sounds like a sweet and harmless phrase, it could come off as an insult if you aren't careful!

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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