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The evolution of sorry

By Marc Settle
BBC News

Saying sorry - or not saying it - is back in the headlines in the wake of the Downing Street e-mail smears. While the word dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, its current use doesn't.

Gordon Brown's hands
Gordon Brown first expressed regret...

Would you know the difference in meaning between "I'm sorry" and "I apologise"? If you bumped into someone with your shopping trolley, you might use either phrase.

But what about expressing regret? For politicians the differences are key, and the choice of the right phraseology is vital.

At the height of the row over the Downing Street e-mails, the prime minister wrote to those unfairly slurred, saying: "Any activity such as this that affects the reputation of our politics is a matter of great regret to me."

For the Conservatives, this wasn't a "full apology". Nadine Dorries, one of the Tory MPs smeared, says she would have used the words "I'm so sorry" in the first two sentences of the letter.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries
And later said sorry for the e-mails smearing Nadine Dorries and others

On Thursday, the S word finally came - with Gordon Brown saying he was sorry for the e-mails sent by his close adviser.

But the very phrase itself would not have been heard in the way we now understand it before the start of the last century.

"The word sorry itself goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, but it originally meant distressed, sad, full of sorrow, full of grief," says David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language.

"The modern use, where it's just an expression of apology and regret, is actually very recent. It's only about 100 years ago that people started saying 'I'm sorry'."

Too impersonal

Professor Crystal told BBC Radio 4's PM that the English language is very short of words for expressing sorrow and personal regrets. Before "I'm sorry" came into common currency, much more complicated expressions had to be used.

I cry you mercy
Sorry the Shakespearean way

"If you go back to Shakespearean times, you'll never hear the phrase 'I'm sorry' when people want to apologise. In his plays you'll hear phrases like 'I cry you mercy' or even 'I cry you mercy heartily' coming from his characters."

The evolution of the way the sentiment is expressed in English continued in the 18th Century, when the word apology came into use. Before then "apologia" had meant a very formal defence of some proposition or other.

"The word apology came along in the 1700s," says Professor Crystal, who points out that no sooner did it appear than it was being used mainly in the plural, apologies.

"It's almost as if one isn't enough. Quite quickly you get 'a hundred apologies' and 'a thousand apologies' and so on."

Other phrases also became popular because the basic old English word sorry wasn't considered to be enough, he says. Latin and Greek expressions - apologise comes from Greek - started to be used, along with "feel remorse", "express regrets" and "being mortified".

"But it's a very distancing, rather impersonal sort of language. That's why I think these MPs are saying just say sorry."

The former UK defence minister Des Browne famously came up with a tortured form of words that didn't go quite as far as saying sorry in 2007. It came after 15 Royal Navy sailors who had been captured by Iran were allowed to sell their stories to the media.

"It seems clear to me that I have expressed a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology," he told MPs in the Commons.

Put it right

In the US, President Barack Obama was rather more forthright when a senior politician he'd nominated for a key position in his new administration pulled out. "I screwed up," he said when questioned by the media.

So what would someone say if they wanted to express regret for a mistake, and take responsibility for it and for putting it right?

"If it were me, and I wanted to make the greatest impact, I would avoid the word sorry because it's had such a bad critical history," says Professor Crystal.

"I would certainly avoid all those Greek and Latin-based expressions and I would go back to one of the common idioms expressing sorrow. I'd probably say 'I'll kick myself'."


Below is a selection of your comments.

It's interesting that people don't like to ask for forgiveness particularly either. They say things like "well, I said I was sorry and if they don't accept that then it's not my problem". But if people feel genuine remorse and regret, and wish it hadn't happened - not so that their backsides would be saved but so the other person didn't have to experience the pain - then asking for forgiveness seems the only thing to do.
Mark, London, UK

I have always taught my children that if they need to say sorry, it means it is too late. Instead they acknowledge regret and the need to make amends wherever possible.
Louise, Essex, UK

My preferred term is "I crave pardon" - as it requires a response, an acknowledgement from the person who felt wronged that they are now satisfied. I often follow up with "Is there anything I can do to put things right?"
Megan, Cheshire UK

I think all these circumlocutions to avoid actually expressing any genuine remorse for a situation are worthless, and little more than a paper exercise. I'd rather have a letter saying, "You're in a mess and I don't care, so nah-nah!", than to have to wade through obfuscation and sophistry.
Fee Lock, Hastings, East Sussex

The best way to apologise is to frankly admit to wrongdoing, and then to acknowledge the fact that your mistake has hurt someone. "This situation makes me feel regret" is a weak apology. "It was my fault: it was wrong of me to cause you distress, and for that I am sorry" is a strong apology.
Chris Melville, London, UK

For a simple error, to which we are all prone, a formal statement of apology such as "sorry" is quite sufficient. However, acts of deceit, deliberate obfuscation, threats and violence cannot be absolved by words alone as these show a deficiency of character that has to be addressed before any apology can be made, let alone accepted.
Nigel Wilson, Buckingham, UK

Odd that you can list al those circumlocutions and miss "I beg your pardon," or even "excuse me."
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK



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