Politicians who say stupid things (OK, that’s redundant) could learn a lot from Southern women. Specifically, they could learn that you can say absolutely anything you want about anybody, as long as you end the sentence with “bless his heart.”
I discovered this over a two-day period in February when I was in Lexington,Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., on a book tour. I was living on regional jets and Red Bull, and I actually missed the sleet and the ice that marks Vermont as winter starts to wind down.
In any case, when I was in Lexington — bluegrass country — I was being driven to the NPR affiliate radio station by a very nice grandmother who was telling me in very great detail why their grass is blue. In all fairness, I had asked. Abruptly, a plush town car made an illegal U-turn to coast into the parking lot for the sort of nightclub where the women do all the dancing and the men do all the watching, causing my driver to slam on the brakes and swerve into the breakdown lane. She shook her head as we resumed driving and murmured, “That man nearly killed us both so he could go to a strip club, bless his heart.”
The next day when I was in Nashville, I had another extremely well-bred grandmother as my media escort, and she happened to have two sons who play minor league baseball. When the conversation turned to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee infielder who had recently confessed to using steroids, she remarked, “Oh, I was absolutely furious with him for taking those steroids. He has tarnished both his legacy and the game, bless his heart.”
And so I asked her about the “bless his heart” she had added to the end of her sentence. “When a good Southern girl says something unflattering about someone else, we like to cushion the meanness a little bit,” she explained. “And so we add that expression at the end to take away some of the sting.”
Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether the remark is completely justified or you’re simply being snarky. To wit, a good Southern girl might be just as likely to add “bless his heart” to either of the following comments:
“That Bernie Madoff sure did ruin a lot of people’s lives, bless his heart.”
“That little baby is the ugliest creature this side of a lizard, bless his heart.”
Now, we have our share of colloquialisms here in New England that must make Southerners think we’re chowderheads. Two books I have drawn upon often over the years are Wolfgang Mieder and Mary Azarian’s “Talk Less and Say More: Vermont Proverbs” and Robert Hendrickson’s “Yankee Talk: A Dictionary of New England Expressions.” My favorite word I gleaned from these texts? “Canoodle.” It’s a synonym for necking, as in, “Don’t you two go canoodling while I’m shoveling the snow off the roof. I want to be sure you hear the thud if I fall!”
When I think back on the late Paul Goodyear — one of Lincoln’s last dairy farmers and one of the funniest men I met when I first moved to Vermont — I recall him shaking his head in disapproval and exclaiming, “Judas Priest!” According to his daughter, Lisa Prescott, when he was seriously disgusted he would unleash the following chain of invectives: “By the rumped up, peeled healed, red roaring rollicker Judas!” You can find a definition for “Judas Priest” in Hendrickson’s book, but not Goodyear’s more colorful vituperation.
I like the idea that three simple words, “Bless his heart,” gives a person the cover to seriously speak one’s mind. Someday I would love to see a marriage of New England and Southern expressions. Just imagine: “By the rumped up, peeled healed, red roaring rollicker Judas, those bankers were canoodling by the ice sculptures they bought with bailout money — bless their hearts.”
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 5, 2009.)