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American Speech




Language and identity are intricately woven into the personal and public lives of social groups. Words and phrases may originate in a subculture morphing into mainstream culture on the comingled streams of interactions among the masses. These words and phrases have specific meanings within their original contexts in their home cultures, yet they vary and evolve as they travel on the above-mentioned comingled streams of interactions and conversations. In this paper, we explore the typified Southern expression, ‘bless your heart,’ examining the ways in which this phrase is used, understood and reinterpreted as it circulates within the South and outside of it. We examine data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and substantiate those findings through sociolinguistic interviews focusing on individuals’ experiences with this phrase. We first note that when this phrase is used, it is capable of accomplishing a range of meanings, but positive and negative; however, when it gets spoken about, a singular, negative connotation of the phrase and those who use it emerges, conjuring images of the ‘sassy Southern belle.’ Despite this dichotomy of how the phrase is used and spoken about, a third, and more nuanced, understanding of the phrase was often evoked by the interview participants. Our research highlights the complexity of this phrase for both cultural insiders (i.e. Southerners) and outsiders (i.e. non-Southerners) and the potential negative repercussions of the monolithic representation of white Southern women and the iconic link between this figure of personhood and the seemingly innocuous phrase, ‘bless your heart.’


Copyright 2020 by the American Dialect Society

Accepted version of article published in American Speech.

Original Publication Citation

Defibaugh, S., & Taylor, K. (2020). Bless your heart: Constructing the ‘Southern Belle’ in the modern South’. American Speech, 1-34.