Sorry seems to be the hardest word, and yet we Brits offer up the ‘S’ word eight times a day.
That’s 230,000 utterances in a lifetime! I’m sorry, but what is wrong with us?
Like novelty teddy bears, squeeze gently and we burp out an apology. It’s deferential heartburn. A tick at the drop of a hat (even when we haven’t dropped it). Spill our smoothie or get your dog to wee on us, and we’ll say sorry. It’s a national sport and unlike football, we’re good at it.
It’s also a social disease and, like hair nits, has never respected the British class system. While workers doff their caps, Middle England can’t wait to apologise for its aga and au pair. Meanwhile, a new breed of contrite blue-bloods, stitch mea culpa into their family crests! It’s little wonder our acute apologitis continues to pass down the generations; from an early age, UK offspring are encouraged to perform the act of pardoning themselves like a school nativity!
And how many other nations apologise when they’re irritated? Only in Blighty, would we soften the blow with a phoney bon mot of regret – “Sorry, but I’m not doing it and you can’t make me!” Or, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but our latte only comes in a glass, okay?”
We’re also rather adept at saying sorry without actually saying it. Henry Hitchings once claimed that Briton’s willingness to apologise for what they hadn’t done was only matched by their reluctance to beg forgiveness for what they had. Here, politicians and corporations lead the way by being “not at all proud” of their behaviour or expressing “deep regret” when their smart phones spontaneously combust.
The original meaning of the word ‘sorry’ is ‘distressed, grieved or full of sorrow’ which, if given full measure, eight times a day would leave us all wrung out. So instead, British ingenuity has adapted this favourite word to a myriad of other daily uses. Here’s just a few:
To signal one’s existence to another person
To facilitate passing within six feet of another person
On entering a room and discovering another person in it
On being discovered in a room by another person entering
To apologise (archaic)