Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Well, Bless my Cotton-Pickin’ Heart

This month alphaDictionary will set a new record of more than 500,000 unique visitors to the site. A ‘unique visitor’ is a distinct viewer.  This excites me because it will bring more mail and, hopefully, delightful pieces like this one, received today from Julie McIntosh of Dallas, Texas. By the way, she is right: you can say pert much what you want to about a person down South so long as you prefix or suffix it with ‘bless my heart’. . . and that’s what I like about the South.

I have to correct y’all about your definition of “bless your heart” [in your Glossary of Quaint Southernisms].  This is not [only] a compliment, nor is it an expression of encouragement or approval.  Quite the contrary, this delightful and right useful expression is frequently called upon because properly bred Southerners (particularly Southern ladies like yours truly) would never want to say a harsh word about anyone.  Therefore, we soften it with “bless your heart” or “bless his heart” or “bless her heart”, etc.  
Example: “Bless his heart, if you put his brain on the head of a pin it would roll around like a bowlin’ ball on a six-lane highway.” 
Example: “That child has a face only her mother could love, bless her little heart.”
Example: An uncouth man says to southern lady, “Damn, woman… You’re FINE!”  Southern Lady responds, “Well,  bless your heart” rather than giving the uncouth man the “go to hell” he so richly deserves.   
For my last example, if you have a little ol’ lady in her Ford Tempo driving 45 in the fast lane in Detroit, someone might say to her, “HEY! (expletive deleted) What the (expletive deleted) do you think you’re doing?  Get the (expletive deleted) off the road!”  Down South, we’d just pass her on the right and say, “Well bless that darlin’ ol’ girl’s heart.” 
Basically, if the heart is sufficiently blessed, then any negative comment is softened into something downright pleasant — or at least less than nasty.     
But y’all just didn’t know, what with you bein’ from Pennsylvania and all…bless yer precious little ol’ Yankee hearts!   
Hugs and Kisses,  
Julie McIntosh

13 Responses to “Well, Bless my Cotton-Pickin’ Heart”

  1. tamigirlrocks Says:

    My dear Miss Julie:

    Don’t forget the alternative “well, bless your pea-pickin heart!” In our circle in Jackson (MS), the two are interchangeable. I am an a transplant to Arizona for the past twenty-eight years. Thanks for the memories.

  2. rbeard Says:

    Hmmm. As my title indicates, in North Carolina in the 50s it was “cotton-pickin'”. I would think that at least as much cotton was picked in Mississippi as NC. “Keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off that!” abounded. In fact, I’m not sure it was grammatical in those days and places to say “hand” without “cotton-pickin'” prefixed to it.

  3. Mary Ellen Hood Says:

    If you were “born & bred Southern” you would also hear, “Bless yo little pea pickin’ heart” or God luv you, honey…..Yay Bless yo
    hart, you do make me smile!” That’s from central Alabama, South of Birmingham in the 1950’s & ’60’s.

  4. Mary Ellen Hood Says:

    Oh, don’t get me started……this COULD go on AWHILE!

  5. Monelle Boyett Says:

    I grew up in the southwest corner of Oklahoma, practically in Texas from two directions. Hollis is known for both cotton and blackeyed peas, so both expressions are common to my vocabulary. I’d like to register a not so common comment, coined (so far as I know) by a classmate of mine back in the ’40s. I’ve never heard it anywhere else, but after all these years I still get the giggles when I think of his response to the only student with the right answer to a teacher’s question: “Well bless yore little pointy head! You’ve had it in the pencil sharpener again, haven’t you?”

  6. Monelle Boyett Says:

    I did not say Your comment is awaiting moderation. LOL

  7. Cathy Says:

    I’m from Texas, and I (and my people) try our best to refrain from saying anything unkind. However, on the occasion that we must, we do soften the verbal blow with a “bless your/their heart”… And it’s quite handy; one can get away with alot by prefacing it by blessing their heart…

  8. Giraffer Says:

    Don’t “pea-pickin'” and “cotton-pickin'” have racial/slave-motivated connotations? I grew up in Bama, so find myself habitually repeating the expressions. However, I like to think of myself as evolved out of the racist viewpoints of my ancestors…so, today, I found myself questioning the oppressive undertones of the statement and googled my way to this site. Thus, I don’t know much about this site…just wanted to pose the contemplation.

  9. Mike Pickard Says:

    Regarding Giraffer’s entry: Please! Must we look for racism under every black and white rock in this politically correct world? It sho’ ’nuff aggravates me when that happens.

  10. Mary Ellen Hood Says:

    We Southerners just “get going” on a good story & with a little chuckle from an encouraging audience our creative juices kick into high gear & “the Lord only knows” what will come out of our mouths. Of course a party atmosphere does help get the ball rollin’. Being good “Southern Baptists” of course we would never let strong drink enter the picture…………but that has never slowed down our embellishment of a tall tale. You just get a crowd gathered at the river on the 4th of July with hamburgers on the grill & we can spin some yarns that are real “knee slappers!” We can spin some scary stories around a fire on Halloween. We can tell tear jerkers of past loved ones on Memorial Day. Depression Era stories are told on Labor Day. Thanksgiving & Christmas stories are full of fun. We recount all the tall tales that have come down through the family. You hear about the mischief pulled by generations of children past & present. In my family we always hear funny incidents that have come out of church groups. There were lots of teachers in the family so we share stories of why Johnny lost his homework & why Sally had to stay home from school. Then there are the family dog & cat stories. You just throw out a scenario at dinner & that starts the ball rolling. By the end of the meal your body & spirit have both been fed. I found that the stories varied in subject matter & by no means focused on one topic. They would ebb & flow according to what was going on in the family, the community, the church, the nation, or they would jump to pure humor just for the sake of enjoying laughter & providing entertainment.

  11. Kimberly Says:

    We definitely say this in NC, but if the behavior you’re blessing her heart over continues you might need a come to Jesus meeting where you chew her butt out.

  12. Mississippi Melissa Says:

    @ Giraffer…. If you aren’t wise enough to know that both cotton picking and pea picking were done by both whites and blacks, well bless your heart and God love ya!

  13. Janet Dunfee Says:

    I am so grateful for the comments and wisdom of these Southern ladies. I feel so pea pickin’ edified right now, bless my heart. And bless the hearts of all the ladies who wrote in. I’m happy for the explanation from Mississippi Melissa that both cotton and peas were picked by both white and black people. My mixed race granddaughter was so insulted when I said to her (when she came in soaking wet from taking the bus home from the city and walking the rest of the way in a downpour),” Well, bless your cotton pickin’ heart. You’re soaked.” She was very upset indeed, and I will not be using that phrase again. She is a beautiful, kind, very intelligent young woman and I do not want to insult her in any way.
    Thanks again. Janet

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