Saying sorry used to be a way of apologising, but these days the s-word has come to mean many different things, and its heavy use says much about modern British attitudes.
Despite what Elton John sang, sorry seems to come easy these days
"It always seems to me that sorry seems to be the hardest word."
So sang a bespectacled, flares-wearing Elton John in his famous 1976 hit Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.
Not anymore, Elton. Today, sorry seems to be the easiest word.
According to a survey of 1,100 people conducted by Esure car insurance company (famous for their "Calm down dear!" adverts starring Michael Winner), the average Brit will say sorry a staggering 1.9 million times in his or her lifetime.
The word sorry is uttered 368 million times per day in the UK.
The s-word was traditionally used to express regret for having done something wrong. Now, according to Esure, it appears to have "transformed into a common and over-used figure of speech that makes its way into most daily conversations".
These days, we use the word sorry not only to express sorrow for a misdemeanour, but also as an alternative to "pardon" ("Sorry, I didn't quite catch that") and "excuse me" (as in saying sorry when we bump into someone - or even, rather bizarrely, when they bump into us).
WHO DO WE SAY SORRY TO?
37% of our use is aimed at partners
19% to strangers
14% to our children
14% to work colleagues
8% to friends
5% to parents
3% to siblings
1% to the boss
The average Brit says sorry often, but admits that they don't mean it more than a third of the time.
A majority of Britons - 86% - believe that people use the s-word flippantly, as a cheap and convenient way of excusing anti-social or inappropriate behaviour.
Indeed, Esure found that saying sorry for actually having done something wrong - the traditional use of the word - is now at the bottom of the list of reasons why people utter the word.
In the top five reasons for saying sorry,
• number one is when we don't have time to speak to someone or do something ("Sorry, I don't have time to talk right now");
• two is to apologise on someone else's behalf, such as our children, a partner or a colleague ("Sorry, little Jimmy is always smashing things");
• three is when we didn't hear what someone was saying ("Sorry, can you repeat that?");
• in fourth place is when you want something to be explained to you again ("Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean");
• and right at the bottom, at five, is when we actually feel the need to apologise for having double-crossed, lied to or let someone down - "I'm sorry."
We are most likely to say sorry to our partners, and least likely to say it to the boss.
Sorry is a "tick of the nervous middle-class caricature in old sitcoms"
Twenty-seven percent of our uses of the word sorry are aimed at our partners; 19% are said to strangers; 14% to our children; 14% to work colleagues; 8% to friends; 5% to parents; 3% to siblings; and just 1% to the boss-man (or woman).
It seems Britain is developing a reputation as a nation of sorry-sayers.
One textbook for foreign people learning English, published by Longman in 1997, has a section on our peculiar use of the word "sorry".
Next to a set of illustrations of Brits saying sorry in various situations - "Sorry, can I say something?", "Sorry, you've given me the wrong change" - the book explains, "When people say 'sorry' in English, they are not always apologising". It then asks: "Do you use the same word for all these situations in your language?"
How did sorry become the easiest word? It used to be uttered sparingly, as a way of confessing both guilt and sorrow for a mistake. According to one Dictionary of Etymology, sorry has its origins in the Old English word 'Sarig', meaning "distressed, full of sorrow." Now we use it to mean everything from "What?" to "Whatever".
What explains Britons' endless apologetics, our over-reliance on the s-word in all sorts of situations?
For Mark Tyrrell, a psychotherapist at Uncommon Knowledge, a group that promotes personal development and emotional intelligence, a lingering culture of deference is to blame.
"Saying sorry so much is a deep-rooted British characteristic. The class system is largely to blame, as 'sorry' comes out of politeness, which is there for social cohesion.
"The new middle classes had to apologise for no longer being working class, but also for not really being upper class either. The vast majority of Brits belong to the middle classes so saying sorry has become endemic."
Tyrrell believes we also play games with the s-word, sometimes using it to our advantage.
"[In some situations], one partner tries to emotionally blackmail the other so they feel somehow at fault or guilty.
Sorry - the Pope said he was after offending Muslims last year
"We also say sorry a lot if we feel that we are to blame for something - which is called 'internalising' - such as when someone bumps into you and you end up saying sorry to them instead of the other way round."
Ed Barrett, a columnist for the satirical website Anorak who has written on modern manners and mores, thinks we sometimes say sorry to show that we are good, upstanding moral citizens, rather than as a way of actually taking responsibility for some wrong or other.
"Sorry is the comic tick of the nervous middle-class caricature found in old sitcoms", he says.
"And then today there is a rise in the theatrical public mea culpa apology - such as Blair's half-apology for slavery - which is usually about ostentatiously displaying oneself in an appealing light. It has nothing to do with contrition."
Barrett thinks there was actually something positive in the old "culture of deference", and it was a world away from today's narcissistic fashion for public apologising.
"Deference was not the same as subservience. Deference means paying people respect and treating them courteously out of deference to their age, position, experience or the service that they provide you. It is not just a case of looking up to people; it's as much about paying deference to your juniors or 'inferiors' as it is vice versa.
"True manners, true politeness, are about being considerate and thoughtful."
And perhaps if we were more truly thoughtful these days, we wouldn't be using "sorry" as a default word - almost as a get-out clause - everywhere from the home to the workplace to the street corner.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I'm sorry, but I don't quite believe your stats. If we are to believe that the 'average' says sorry 1.9 million times and we live for 30,000 days in our lifetime, that means we need to say sorry over 60 times a day from day 1 and I'm sorry, but I just don't believe it. According to my Father, sorry means 'YOU'LL NEVER DO IT AGAIN!'.
Peter Carvell, Loughborough
As a Brit living in Switzerland I was a little surprised to hear the Swiss using sorry. Some guy knocked into me whilst skiing and immediately said "sorry". I thought how does he know I'm English, my skiing wasn't that bad. It was only after a few more months that I realised that the German speaking Swiss have adopted it has part of their language. Here in Switzerland "sorry" has come to mean anything from "sorry" to "excuse me".
Gavin Harte, Zurich, Switzerland
As for 'sorry?' coming to mean 'pardon?' - surely 'pardon' is merely short for 'I beg your pardon?' or 'pardon me', another way of apologising by asking for forgiveness..?
You might say we're in a sorry state. I've been known to wind up friends by asking them what they're apologising for when they say "sorry" to me. I'd like to take this opportunity of saying sorry to them.
David Clark, Chatham, UK
I enjoyed reading this story. As an efl teacher I must admit I often teach the use of the word as in example three. I entirely agree that the word seems to have become an excuse for doing rather than an apology for having done something.
For a bit of trivia, how about the Love Story line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry"? In fact, this was originally "Love means not ever having to say you're sorry" - where´s the difference?
I feel there is a general lack of consideration and thoughtfulness for others; we´d all get a lot further with a bigger dose of each.
In the past we would say 'sorry' to express regret for having done something wrong. No one likes to be that forthright these days. So how do we put it now - the dreaded 'I apologise'. Sorry does seem to be the hardest word to say when you actually mean it.
1.9 million times in a lifetime! That is once every 12 seconds for 70 yeaars (taking out the time we are asleep but not taking into account the time learning to talk). How reliable is the rest of this survey?
alan palmer, Portsmouth
It's a word that is now completely devoid of any emotional meaning. Thirty years ago I would only say it when I meant. You learn the hard way that being true to your beliefs only lets the cynics take advantage and win - since few people will take the good time and effort to try to understand your position - especially in the workplace. So many people now require contriteness. If you're required to say "Sorry" say it but don't mean it at all - but continue to hold to you're beliefs. It's just so much easier to do than expect others to have the wit to understand your position. People just will not comprehend that some differences of opinion are simply that and take a "live and let live" and tolerant attitude. It is the society of political correctness we live in that requires us to appear to conform - we're fast heading towards Orwellian "double-speak".
Tom Primrose, Edinburgh
What is the point of showing a picture of the pope with the "sorry" caption? Is it another attempt to belittle the Catholic Church by insinuating that the pope was not really sorry for offending an over-sensitive Muslim world, or am I just an over-sensitive Catholic Christian?
I hate it when people think they can get away with thoughtless or rude behaviour simply by saying a half hearted 'Sorry' after the event. You should have seen the look on one person's face when they did that and I replied - 'I don't accept your apology as you should not have shouted at me, it was unprofessional'. I felt much better for that as I knew I had made them think about their behaviour!
Saying 'sorry' constantly, and not meaning it, is not exclusively a British pastime (although if it were an olympic sport Team Britain would win hands down!) The Czechs seem to come somewhere near, as far as I can see, although a league or so below Blighty. What I find particularly strange (the Czechs do this too) is, as the article rightly states, the habit of saying 'sorry' when somebody does something wrong to you! I also find it quite disturbing that even though we ALL know this is ludicrous (myself included) we STILL do it time and again (myself included!) Humans... we're a strange bunch. (Especially us Brits.)
Richard Savage, Plzen, The Czech Republic
Your report misses out one of the most significant uses of the word sorry: as a mode of aggression. The phrase "I'm sorry but..." is always a prelude to some negative statement and indicates nothing whatever to do with sorrow!
Sorry to correct your grammar, but the title of your first table should read "To whom do we say sorry?" Interesting, though.
Clive Hoare, Carmarthen Wales
'Sorry' in Nigeria is also used to express a form of regret - 'I am sorry to hear about your mother' to indicate that you ?commiserated? with someone on their mother's illness/death. I've never known an equivalent English expression for this - it always seemed sufficiently concise and expression.
Surely all of the uses of 'sorry' in effect mean the same thing. 'Sorry, can you repeat that' is apologising for something you did - you didn't hear properly. 'Sorry, I don't have time to talk right now' - apologising for being busy, for not being able to engage someone. 'Sorry, little Jimmy is always smashing things' is an apology on someone else's behalf, usually someone you are responsible for. 'Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean' is an apology for your lack of understanding. Ultimately, all uses of the word are apologies for something - be it something you've done, something someone else has done, or an apology for the circumstances that have led to inconvenience to someone else. This article is toothless. Sorry.
Ross , London
After years of prompting to say we are sorry by psychotherapists, we finally did it. We deprived the word of its meaning! Ups sorry
Elena S., Athens, Greece
Sorry, but I didn't get what you are trying to say here.
Tom Keya, London, England
Sorry, but I feel I must apologise for saying sorry.
anthony martindale, Manchester
Along with "according to new research, apparently parents are children's main role model", this is one of the most benign and pointless news stories I've ever read. I'm increasingly disturbed by the contents of this website.
David, Fukui Japan
I'd always gathered that there were three levels to the word 'sorry', and found it strange that they are all the same word.
Firstly; "I apologise that I do not have time to listin to you" and "I apologise that I bumped into you". Secondly; "I regret what I did, it was selfish, etc." Thirdly; "I feel sorrow that your rabbit died" Also, I'd always assumed that 'excuse me' was something you say before bumping into someone, rendering it useless if you didn't notice that they were there.
These days? I have a feeling all those uses of the word "sorry" have existed for decades if not centuries. It's all about context! For example, telling you I love jelly beans does not and should not "water down" a declaration of my love for my family.
David Young, Brisbane, Australia
For some reason I always seem compelled to say 'sorry' when someone has walked into me, even though it is the other person's fault. I don't know why this is. Maybe what I am actually apologising for is my inner rage at their not apologising? Either way it's probably safe to say I have some self esteem issues that need addressing...
This article seems rather nonsensical, the initial text suggests that people are using Sorry for things other than apologising yet the examples listed are all correct uses of the word. Is this article really anything other than a publicity stunt for the company esure? There is nothing in this article that suggests that the word "Sorry" is being used incorrectly, only that it's being used more. Is it really so wrong that people be more polite about certain things? "I didn't hear you" is much more blunt and aggressive than "Sorry, I didn't hear you".
The worst example of "sorry" being overused as a word is at railway stations when a disembodied recorded voice tells you how sorry he/she is that the train you have been waiting for for half an hour has just been cancelled.
David Harrison, Oxford
Whenever I am in London (as a Brit living in NY), I am impressed with the number of times "sorry" is mumbled. Even when someone does soemthing to me- I say "sorry"- Obviously a "sorry state of affairs"...sorry!
Prof. Victor Roger Rubin, London/New York
Isn't this all just a bit over-analytical? Language evolves all the time, and the word "sorry" has evolved into a very mild term of regret, or even to mean something more like "excuse me". It doesn't mean we actually apologise any less or more - it just means that we use different words to do it.
Richard, Edinburgh, UK
It seems everyone is saying sorry except those that need to apologise! Government and big business are leading the way in squirming out of a genuine apology when they have either lied, made a mistake or demonstrated their breathtaking incompetence or mendacity. Blair's not sorry about Iraq, the Director of Bristol Airport isn't sorry about the runway fiasco, British Gas aren't sorry for cocking up my gas bill (again)- the list could go on ad nauseum.
Why can't those in power over the rest of us actually have the mettle and moral honesty to admit when they're wrong and apologise appropriately?
The Apologist, Bristol, UK
Interesting read, too many times have i been branded rude for not casualy throwing out "sorry". When i appologise, i mean it, which to my mind makes my appologies worth a lot more than the people who say sorry to me 10 times a day.
In London, it seems as though "sorry" has replaced "excuse me", as in instead of saying "excuse me" to someone who's in the way, people shove past and utter a "sorry" in retrospect.
Dan, london (ex-manchester)
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