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‘Bless your heart,’ unfiltered, in the national spotlight

After South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley publicly called for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to release his tax returns, Trump tweeted “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley” on March 1. Haley, pictured at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28, 2012, responded by tweeting to Trump, “Bless your heart.”
After South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley publicly called for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to release his tax returns, Trump tweeted “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley” on March 1. Haley, pictured at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28, 2012, responded by tweeting to Trump, “Bless your heart.” AP

Walt Wolfram was practically giddy.

“Bless your heart,” read the tweet that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had just zinged at Donald Trump in response to an insult directed at her, creating a widespread reaction on Twitter.

As a linguist who revels in the nuances of language, Wolfram was thrilled with the three little words Haley used to answer the GOP presidential candidate’s bluster.

“It’s the perfect comeback,” Wolfram, a professor at N.C. State University, immediately told his wife. “In a sense, it shut Donald Trump off. How do you respond when someone says, ‘Bless your heart?’ It could be a sincere thing. But it’s not, of course.”

Or, as Wilmington-based columnist Celia Rivenbark sized up that particular Trump Twitter feud, Haley won that round.

“Perfectly executed,” Rivenbark said. “She can drop the mic and move on.”

It would seem that “Bless your heart” is having a moment. Credit goes to Haley, whose tweet went viral, but also to actress Jennifer Garner. Just days before Haley put Trump on blast, Garner’s juicy Vanity Fair cover story hit the Internet, where she talked at length for the first time about her separation from actor Ben Affleck. The West Virginia native was asked about a huge tattoo of a rising phoenix covering Affleck’s back (one that’s since been deemed fake).

“You know what we would say in my hometown about that? ‘Bless his heart,’ ” Garner says, reportedly with a wink. “A phoenix rising from the ashes. Am I the ashes in this scenario? ... I refuse to be the ashes.”

Just like that, Garner, whose image as a wholesome actress always has been part of her appeal, deployed the same move as Haley. She graciously told the entire country that she thinks her estranged husband is absolutely ridiculous, and she kept her reputation intact.

That’s why “bless your heart” is an incredibly useful term, said Wolfram, a William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English and director of the N.C. Language and Life Project at NCSU. Wolfram and colleague Jeffrey Reaser addressed the phrase, among many other Southernisms, in the 2014 book “Talkin’ Tar Heel.”

He said the phrase is served as the “icing” of Southern politeness, a subtle way to insult someone but without coming straight out and calling someone an idiot. Wolfram starts giggling, which escalates into laughter, as he describes the phrase’s origins.

“You can be overtly polite while offering an insult that no one can respond to,” he said.

It also can soften the blow, should something negative come after the phrase. Now, there are times where it’s used genuinely, to express sympathy or an “Aw, hon,” but many find that it’s become more passive-aggressive as its definition has evolved.

“The fact of the matter is I get glee,” he said. “In reality, a Southerner is just as rude as anyone else. ... Underneath, all people are the same.”

He found an instance of it being used in a literal sense in the 1850s. He said it started as a way to bless someone religiously, and then became associated with something that’s said when someone sneezes. Wolfram said there’s a myth that when you sneeze, your heart stops. That’s why he thinks “your heart” was added.

“If you sneeze, you could legitimately say, ‘Bless your heart,’ ” he said.

“Bless your heart” has helped Rivenbark’s career flourish. She writes a syndicated humor column that appears in 30 to 40 newspapers, including The News & Observer. She titled one of her essays “Bless Your Heart, Tramp” in the mid-1990s and it earned her so much response that she started incorporating it into a speaking gig. It also became the title of her first book in 2000, which has led to several more books with equally sassy titles.

She finds that people, particularly Northerners, want to know how to use the phrase correctly, so she addresses that in her book talks. They want to know whether they’ve been insulted.

Rivenbark breaks down the phrase like an English teacher diagrams a sentence.

“A standalone ‘bless your heart’ is very different than a prefaced ‘bless your heart,’ or a parenthetical,” she said. “As long as the heart is sufficiently blessed, it softens the insult. The insult can be pretty awful.”

But it’s not always a bad thing. If someone says it to a friend who has had the flu, it’s a genuine expression, she said.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s heartfelt,” she said.

But she remembers when she was 10 and heard her grandmother drop the phrase, followed by, “You know it’s amazing, even though she had that baby 7 1/2 months after she got married, it weighed 10 pounds.” She clearly was giving a dig to the woman who got pregnant before marriage, Rivenbark recalls, while giving the appearance of marveling at the infant’s weight.

“It was a huge diss,” she said.

While half my family is from South Carolina, and I spent plenty of time there, I don’t ever remember my grandparents, relatives or their friends using the phrase. Only when I came to North Carolina from the Washington, D.C., suburbs was I introduced to it, though it’s a Southernism I haven’t adopted.

It never occurred to Vicki Jeter that no one knows what it means. Jeter, of Cary, grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and has lived in North Carolina and Texas. Jeter, 70, is the publicity chairwoman of the Cary Woman’s Club, a charitable and service organization with members of all ages. She said she utters the phrase frequently, as do those around her.

“You listen to people tell their tales of woe. After listening to it for awhile, you come to ‘Bless your heart,’ in a consoling way,” she said. “I have also just many times listened to someone ramble and ramble. I’m sitting there with my arms crossed. Finally when I can’t take it anymore, I say, ‘Bless your heart.’

“It comes with a facial expression also,” she adds.

She doesn’t recall if she’s been shushed in a similar way, though she knows it could have happened. Most of the time, she thinks people say it in the nice way when she’s telling her own tales of woe. She’s become attuned to how it’s used. “If they look at you askance, you know it,” she said. “Three words really said volumes.”

Wolfram, who is from Philadelphia but has lived in North Carolina for 24 years, seems excited that the phrase is getting used in such a high profile way. He knows it has been commercialized, with the phrase gracing throw pillows, T-shirts and the like. But Haley, he said, made history when she used it.

“Others looked at it and went on,” he said. “To a linguist, that’s pretty interesting and highlights the intricacies of language.

“It gets 15 minutes of fame,” he said, with a giggle.