Sorry emoticon

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Elton John / Bernie Taupin (1976)

Every now and then, a journalist gets some mileage out of writing about how British people say “Sorry!” a lot in trivial settings—when we’ve found ourselves in someone’s way, when someone has misunderstood our meaning, when we’ve snaffled the last biscuit just before someone else reached for it.

I recently encountered yet another one of those pieces in the Guardian. With the aid of a stern talking-to from a German flatmate, the author describes how she has now given up “constantly apologising”:

Apparently, it would have an impact on my self-esteem. I’d believe that I was at fault for things – and that would make me feel like a general nuisance, which I wasn’t.

If she really does suffer from low self-esteem, then I really do hope that abandoning the use of a short word that functions as a lubricant in British social interactions will improve her situation—but I doubt if writing about it in the Guardian will have helped, given the negative responses in the Comments section at the end of her piece.

I think the problem here is a category error—confusing the utterance “Sorry!” with being apologetic. The writer almost identifies this confusion herself:

I would analyse my speech and ask myself: What do I really feel in this moment? Is what I’m about to say really necessary? Am I saying this because I feel I should or because I actually want to?

So it’s evident that she doesn’t feel apologetic when she says “Sorry!” but she stops short of the obvious implication that the word, in this sort of setting, isn’t an apology at all. It merely acknowledges the existence of a transient and ever-so-sightly awkward human interaction, and allows both parties to draw a line under it. It has more or less the same semantic content as “Oops!” We can tell the difference because, on those rare occasions when these interactions actually cause injury or embarrassment (we stand on someone’s foot, knock their drink out of their hand, or inadvertently kick their dog), we say more than just “Sorry!” We say a lot of words conveying our regret—in other words, we actually apologize.

The thing the Guardian writer is fretting about is simply the most worn-down and minimal usage of the word sorry, which has never, in all its history, been solely a word conveying apology.

Its career in English is about as old as English itself—the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation is to King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy. In Old English it was sáriᵹ, where that curly letter like a “3” is the insular g, which represented the voiced velar fricative sound we can hear in Spanish amigo. Sáriᵹ was the adjective formed from the noun sár, “bodily pain or suffering”, and so sáriᵹ originally conveyed a level of grief or sorrow that was so distressing it felt like bodily pain. That long “a” vowel later evolved into an “o”, so sár has given us our word sore, while sáriᵹ ended up as sorry. (That vowel evolution may have been influenced by Old English sorᵹ, the root of our word sorrow.)

Some more antique usages of sorry still retain that sense of painful grief. Shakespeare, for instance, has Macbeth look at his hands (stained with the blood of murdered King Duncan) and exclaim, “This is a sorry sight,” because he is wracked with guilty sorrow at what he has done.

But sorry could also be used to indicate a condition of wretchedness or worthlessness, and that usage persists in a few phrases, though they may sound a little affected. We can still say, “He was in a sorry state when we found him,” or “He’s a sorry excuse for a human being”, and have our meaning understood.

When we describe ourselves as being “sorry”, we nowadays mean one of two potential sources of sorrow—we’re either expressing sympathy with someone else’s situation, or stating our own sorrow about something we’ve done. The wearily anodyne phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” is an example of the first usage; “I’m sorry to interrupt” illustrates the second. In this latter category, there’s a to/for distinction that is sporadically observed by English speakers. “I’m sorry to interrupt” apologizes for something that is happening now—it’s the phrase you use in order to interrupt. Whereas “I’m sorry for interrupting” is an apology for something that has already happened—having already interrupted, you follow your interruption with an apology.

And if we choose to omit the “I’m” and just say “Sorry!”, we’re to some extent dissociating ourselves from the word, and just dropping it as a social token. Which is the idea with which I started this post.

Finally, I’d like to share a couple of obsolete usages of sorry that make surprising reference to a fairground ride. A sorry-go-round is a depressing cycle of events; whereas a merry-go-sorry is a situation that makes one happy and sad at the same time. The Oxford English Dictionary has no citations for merry-go-sorry since the start of the seventeenth century, but I’m sure we could revive it.

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