The Little Things That Restore Your Faith in Humanity – 1

by Miriam Ronzoni on October 13, 2022

There is something really lovely about the way “bless them/her/him” is sometimes used in the UK (or most of the time even? Also is it a pan-UK thing or predominantly Northern? And what’s the role that social class plays in this type of use?). I am not talking of when people use the phrase to praise or express delight for someone in an unqualified manner, but of when they use it, on the contrary, after having said something ever so slightly nasty about someone – basically, after having gossiped about them. The “bless them” declares the gossip bit concluded, by admitting “well, who knows why they did that, why they are like that, and what they are going through; I could have been them in similar circumstances; actually, I probably am them more often than I think.” Or that’s what I hear in it at least. It is so lovely because it acknowledges imperfection at both ends, and it’s one of the little things that restores a bit your faith in humanity. And since at the moment there aren’t many big things that do that, I think I am going to try and start off series on the little things. This is the first one of them.

PS The comments (thanks) teach me that there are similar expressions in American English – some involving the word “bless,” some not. Maybe that’s a universal feature of the English language, then (or at least it’s not only UK-specific). I am, however, pretty sure that it doesn’t exist in Italian, and that I have never heard of a phrase with quite exactly the same connotation in any other language I understand. That’s why I used to associate it, until now, to a very British way of showing compassion for fellow-humans.



Jake Gibson 10.13.22 at 9:22 pm

Perhaps not quite the same as “bless their heart” or “God love ’em” in the American South.


dilbert dogbert 10.13.22 at 9:53 pm

The phase in the US South is: Bless Your Heart


politicalfootball 10.13.22 at 10:08 pm

In the American South, “Bless your heart” is similar, but is perhaps a bit nastier. It’s an ironic way to express tolerance for someone who isn’t on the right track. As in: “He thinks Republicans are looking out for poor people, bless his heart.”


engels 10.13.22 at 10:37 pm

One variant is “bless his cotton socks”. I don’t think it’s usually so serious but condescending but in an affectionate way (think it’s somewhat northern and demotic).


afeman 10.13.22 at 11:41 pm

I suppose the equivalent from the American Midwest would be something like, “so, yeah, welp”


Bob 10.14.22 at 2:13 am

Thanks for this Miriam. Is there an Italian equivalent?


CM 10.14.22 at 2:22 am

Fans of the Atlanta United soccer team have a big “Bless Your Heart” flag they wave at matches. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that as we get older, my Tennessean wife has started using “Bless your heart” sincerely, e.g. to a waitress who refills the bread basket.

I’m looking forward to this series. In a single day, faith in humanity can be lost and regained and lost again, several times over. Maybe I should say that I have a constant faith that we are occasionally wonderful.


Jestyn 10.14.22 at 6:46 am

I think it’s definitely much more a North of England thing. My Londoner brother does it, but picked it up at University in Leeds.


Miriam Ronzoni 10.14.22 at 8:01 am

Nope, I am about to add a PS to the post about this: not in Italian, and as far as I know not in any of the other languages I speak with reasonable fluency/places where I have lived (I could be wrong of course, I was totlaly oblivious of the American phrase after all).


SusanC 10.14.22 at 8:07 am

Yes, it’s used in British English … but it’s sarcastic.

It’s an example Br. English euphemism and understatement.


SusanC 10.14.22 at 8:12 am

Yes, it’s used in British English.

As I understand the usage, it does express a certain amount of forgiveness for whatever the person referred to has done. But the usage is heavily sarcastic (Br. English euphemism and understatement) and implies that the. speaker thinks the person they are talking about has done something really stupid,


Miriam Ronzoni 10.14.22 at 8:16 am

Yes I agree that it can be used sarcastically and paternalistically but not only.


Blanche Davidian 10.14.22 at 6:26 pm

Also used by Tennessee Ernie Ford to comic effect when he was broadly satirizing Southern speech with “Well bless your pea-pickin’ heart.”


Peggy Dutton 10.15.22 at 10:25 am

In my region of the American South (New Orleans/Mississippi gulf coast) and I imagine in the rest of the South, too, it’s used a number of ways, most of them pleasant and some not so. The sarcastic use of it following a catty comment has become a standard joke among Southerners, but it is not the only or a typical use. It has to be heard in context, with tone of voice playing a role, to understand how it’s being used, but it can be very loving (Bless her heart, I was so happy to see her again!), appreciative (They cleared the fallen tree from the driveway after the storm, bless their hearts.), concerned (Bless his heart! When can he come home from the hospital?), forgiving (She meant to help but put everything in the wrong place, bless her heart.), and other uses all the way down to plain mean ones. But among those with standards of appropriate behavior, its catty use to put someone down is amusing in movies, unacceptable in real life.


MisterMr 10.15.22 at 12:32 pm

@6 and 9

Not sure if it is an equivalent (because I don’t understand well the english usage) but in italian sometimes peole say “benedetto” (blessed) in a semi ironic way, like: “mia figlia ieri è tornata alle 4 di notte, quella benedetta ragazza mi farà impazzire” (“Yesterday night my daughter came hone at 4am, that blessed girl will drive me crazy”).


Peggy Dutton 10.16.22 at 12:04 am

MisterMr’s comment reminds me. In a class we once read a very short poem by Robert Frost where the teacher pointed out that the word “blessed” is used first in its highest meaning as revered or venerated, second in a lower, patronizing way, and finally as almost a curse.

But Islands of the Blesséd,
Bless you, son.
I never came upon a blessed one.


J-D 10.17.22 at 10:47 pm

I’m fairly sure that ‘blessed’ as a generic intensifier is a euphemism for ‘damned’ (or adjectivally used ‘damn’) as a generic intensifier, and I’m guessing from MisterMr’s comment that something similar may be true in Italian; this usage is surely less specific than, but possibly related to, ‘bless them’ (‘bless their hearts’, ‘bless their souls’).


Miriam Ronzoni 10.18.22 at 8:29 am

Hi there MisterMr, no I wouldn’t say it’s same. Not in the connotation I am referring to here, at least (“bless” has tons of different connotations, and not all of those are being used equally often everywhere: since posting this – also in other venues/social media – I got both confirmation that the connotation I am talking about is most definitely a thing, and a clear sense that it is not a ting everywhere).


Miriam Ronzoni 10.18.22 at 8:45 am

J-D: That euphemistic use is definitely very common – maybe even the most common one overall, you are probably a native speaker and I am not – but the connotation I am referring to here is different. I think it may well be regional: I posted the same thing on Facebook, where I largely interact with my real life friends and acquaintances, and many knew what I was talking about. “Bless” is clearly a very versatile expression in English!


J-D 10.18.22 at 11:03 am

…you are probably a native speaker and I am not – but the connotation I am referring to here is different. …

Yes, I’m aware of that usage, and of the difference. I think perhaps I may have been too brief to be clear. What mainly prompted my response was MisterMr’s comment. My point was that there is a usage in English which (probably; I don’t know Italian) parallels the Italian one MisterMr was describing, but that’s not the same as the (English) usage you were describing (although I can’t rule out the possibility that there’s some connection).


engels 10.19.22 at 11:09 am

The second usage is pronounced “blessèd” and I think it’s said instead of “bloody” because that’s considered taboo (possibly a contraction of “by our Lady”). If there’s a parallel in Italian that’s probably coincidence.


mw 10.19.22 at 2:00 pm

And then there’s the gay version of ‘bless your heart’ .


MisterMr 10.19.22 at 2:46 pm

I think the italian case is an euphemism, but only in a partial way: in my example, I’m really pissed off by my daughter, so I would say “that damn girl”, but she is my daughter so I still love her, so I say “blessed” instead.

However this isn’t based on an assonance detween “damn” (“maledetto” o “dannato”) and blessed (“benedetto”), it is just an inversion of the meaning.

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