Sorry!

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Henry Hitchings has an op-ed in the New York Times (12/13/2013), "A Poor Apology for a Word", in which he claims that the British (and especially the English) are particularly fond of the word "sorry":

…A couple of years ago, I read an article in a British newspaper claiming that the average British person says “sorry” eight times a day — or “204,536 times in threescore years and ten,” in the reporter’s Old Testament idiom. My first reaction was to think this figure absurdly high, so I decided to put the claim to the test.

This initially tentative exercise turned into a monthlong audit of apologies. As soon as I began recording instances of the word in my day-to-day life, I realized that the eight-a-day number was a piddling lowball.

It's an entertaining essay, but I'm not so sure about the precision of the British newspaper article that he cites, nor about the rigorousness of his own "audit".

One thing I am sure of is that the Japanese would certainly give the British ( –> English) a run for their money when it comes to making apologies.

This reminds me of a silly, little joke:

An American working in Japan grew weary of hearing his Japanese colleagues constantly saying sumimasen すみません ("sorry") for every little thing.

So he complained to one of them, "You Japanese say sumimasen all the time.  Don't you think you use it too often?"

To which his Japanese colleague replied apologetically, "Sumimasen!"

This is in contrast to the Chinese who are far more sparing in their use of "duìbùqǐ 对不起 / duìbùzhù 对不住" ("sorry").  Indeed, my mother-in-law taught her children not to SAY "sorry", but to BE sorry, better yet never to do something for which you'd feel ashamed in the first place, and my wife insisted on the same standards in our household.

Of course, there are many other ways to apologize in Chinese and Japanese, with varying nuances and implications.  But I am not aware that either of these languages has a version of "sorry" that is like the aggressive one described by Hitchings where the person who has supposedly been wronged says "sorry" to the person who allegedly did the wronging.  You have to experience the abject awkwardness of someone saying "sorry" to you after you've bumped into them to know how it feels.

[Hat tip Kathe McCleave]

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48 Comments »

  1. Contingent Cassandra said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    I returned from 4 months in England (in the late '80s) saying "sorry" a lot more than I had before (and yes, there's definitely an aggressive, or at least preemptive, version, along the lines of the U.S. use of "pardon me" to get someone who is an obstacle in one's planned pathway to move). Interestingly, friends in grad school (my next stop) interpreted it as stereotypically "feminine" behavior/wording, but I'm pretty sure that, even after 4 years in a girls' high school, it hadn't been part of my vocabulary before my English sojourn.

  2. jfruh said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

    The Canadians have a reputation too, as well as a funny way of saying it — see the Kate Beaton comic second from the bottom here:

    http://www.harkavagrant.com/?id=250

  3. Giles said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    Possibly worth noting for American readers that Brits say "sorry" where others might say "excuse me". It's all in the tone, in both cases.

  4. dw said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    As an ex-Brit in the US, I can confirm that "sorry" is all-pervasive in England. The wonderful Twitter feed https://twitter.com/SoVeryBritish gives you some idea of its ubiquity.

  5. Janne said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    Most uses of "sumimasen" has nothing to do with being sorry. Usually it's just the equivalent to "Um, …"; to clearing ones throat; or to making eye contact, all in order to begin communication. To my ears that usage carries little to no nuance of apology at all.

  6. Jim Breen said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

    The thing about the Japanese saying すみません (sumimasen) so often is that it doesn't just mean "sorry". Depending on the context it can mean "excuse me" or "thank you". In fact the mid-size Kenkyusha 新和英中辞典 gives the "thank you" sense as the first one.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    Sumimasen: The Most Useful Word in The Japanese Language

    http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/sumimasen

    "If you only learn one Japanese word sumimasen (すみません) isn't a bad choice. It can mean 'sorry' or 'excuse me'."

  8. Kevin Matthews said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 9:33 pm

    Just you wait, Henry Hitchings, just you wait.

  9. Janne said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    I'm neither a linguist nor a native English speaker, but doesn't "excuse me" also usually work simply as an attention-grabbing expression, rather than as a statement of contrition?

  10. Brad said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

    I've always thought that the use of leading "Excuse me…" was a neat conversation strategy. If you're being at all literal, the apology is apologizing for itself, and you're just carrying on from there. :)

  11. Randy said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 11:23 pm

    "The Canadians have a reputation too, as well as a funny way of saying it — see the Kate Beaton comic second from the bottom here:

    http://www.harkavagrant.com/?id=250"

    I'm not sure what she's trying to get at with the "soh-ry" spelling, but we pronounce the "or" in sorry just like we do in any almost any other word with "or" in it (the word "word" is an exception, but we're not exceptional in that regard). This pronunciation is not unique to us either. I hear it plenty on American TV shows, although the other pronunciation, where the "or" sounds like the "ar" in "car", might be more common.

    And we do say it a lot, often to the person who's at fault. I've no idea how this compares to other countries, though.

  12. Randy said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

    Oh, the comparison of "sorry" with "excuse me" reminds me of a trip I took to Germany last year. An employee of a restaurant was trying to get the attention of an English speaking patron. She said "sorry", but "excuse me" seemed more appropriate in the context. I guess it's the same word for both senses in German.

  13. Eric said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 12:51 am

    For whatever it's worth, I'm listening to Harry Shearer's Apologies of the Week as I read this.

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 2:41 am

    @ Giles: Part of the reason sorry is so noticeable (to Americans) in British English is definitely that the Brits use it in many contexts where Americans would say excuse me. @jfruh, Randy: And part of the reason it's so noticeable (to Americans) in Canadian English is definitely the fact that Canadians usually pronounce it to rhyme with story rather than starry or somewhere in between. What this means is that mere impressions WITHIN the Anglophone world about whether some Anglophones say "sorry" more than others are bound to be fairly unreliable.

    But I'd be willing to bet that Anglophones in general issue routine apologies more often than speakers of many other languages (perhaps not Japanese).

  15. Matt said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 2:46 am

    Is there a branch of linguistics dedicated to analysing Hugh Grant roles?

  16. djbcjk said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 2:55 am

    In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard was famous for not being able to say "sorry" to the Aboriginal people for past injustices. In 2008, after he had replaced Howard as PM, Kevin Rudd made a formal apology in parliament, including the word "sorry".

    Probably both men didn't realise that "sorry" is semantically different in Aboriginal English (see under "sorry" in Jay Arthur's dictionary, Aboriginal English — "sorry business" is the customary requirements that attend the death of a person, a "sorry cut" is a self-inflicted wound to show sympathy with the dead person).

    The white Australians only understood the word to mean "apologetic" on the part of the sayer. Perhaps Howard felt some power in "sorry" in that he avoided using it, but moronically he said he would be quite happy with a synonym — he would be satisfied with expressing "regret".

  17. michael farris said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 4:04 am

    I think there's a hostile use of 'sorry' in British usage that doesn't exist (or is less common) in the US.

    Once in Gibraltar I saw a woman go to an ATM without realizing there was a line (which blended into the general crowds). People brought her attention to the line at which point she apologized and went to the end of it.

    One man said "Sorry!" as she passed with a kind of drawn out gloating intonation I hadn't ever heard/noticed before with that word. It sounded like equal measures of 'better luck next time!' and 'fuck you!'.

    I've heard similar examples a few times since, always from British speakers and I can't think of what an American equivalent would be, an after the fact taunt with a plausibly deniable accusatory tone.

  18. pj said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 5:31 am

    Sometimes I'd welcome a 'recommend' feature for comments here; I don't have anything substantial to add but would definitely click to say 'Very nice' to Kevin Matthews, and 'Thank you, that link's given me a lot of amusement' to dw.

  19. Jeff Moore said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    The other day I was biking through Shinjuku, trailing a Japanese guy. A taxi stopped right in front of us, and the driver opened the door, nearly hitting the guy riding in front of me. I've lived in Japan for a few years now, but I was still shocked when the *cyclist* said すみません.

    Mysteries of the Far East, truly.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 6:56 am

    Following pj's recommendation, I'd like to say to Jeff Moore, "Fabulous example of a quintessentially Japanese use of sumimasen!"

  21. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    From GKP:

    =====

    See the recent article in Pacific Standard for more on apologies (and more
    specifically non-apologies, which wasn't really your topic):

    http://www.psmag.com/culture/we-suck-at-saying-youre-sorry-apologies-apologizing-71385/

    "We Suck at Sorry: If you need an "if" added to the end of your apology, it's not an apology."

    =====

    BTW, in the Twitter quote that is discussed in the article, I would write "allegations of sexual assault against him" rather than "allegations against him of sexual assault". I realize that the order is probably entirely optional, and that both wordings are perfectly grammatical, but I wonder how others would do it, and whether they have any particular reason for feeling that one order sounds better than the other.

  22. PS said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 7:34 am

    "allegations of sexual assault against him" is a bit ambiguous as to whether "he" is the perpetrator or the victim of the alleged assault.

  23. Arthur said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    Spotted an interesting example on the London Underground last week – a man with a strong French accent pushing his way out of a very crowded carriage by using "sorry" repeatedly in a distinctly irritable / mildly aggressive manner (to be fair there was a risk he wouldn't make it out of the train before the doors closed, so it was more or less communicating "get out of my way"). He had certainly picked up the non-contrite overtones of this version "sorry", though it came across as almost too actively aggressive to be completely idiomatic. To my British ears "excuse me" (in the same tone) would have probably been the more normal choice for a completely native speaker.

  24. Arthur said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    One other data point – in Swahili (at least the version of it that i encountered growing up in Kenya) the phrase "pole" also translates quite directly into both senses of the English "sorry", i.e. in the sense of "minor apology" but also in the sense of commiseration / "i am sorry that [event x] happened to you" even where the event is nothing to do with the person speaking. Could cover an event as minor as a stumble, or as serious as bereavement (in which case it gets amplifed to "pole sana", i.e. "very sorry". I saw it explained somewhere as "expression of regret at another's burden".

    What I don't know is whether a phrase like this is common to other Bantu and/or Arabic influenced languages, or whether this is something that has been absorbed from the British usage. Any views?

  25. marie-lucie said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    Having lived in Canada for several decades, I am surprised to read that Canadians rhyme "sorry" with "story". I have lived on both coasts and don't recall hearing this pronunciation, so perhaps it is a feature of Central Canadian speech? The word does not rhyme with "starry" in Canada either.

    One use of "sorry" I especially dislike is the cheerful "Sorry about that!", with stress and rising intonation on "that", said by obviously un-sorry people, such as cashiers who made a mistake entering the price of your purchase, making your bill noticeably higher than expected (eg $50 for a $5 item). I often hear this from young employees, while older ones will apologize profusely.

    As for "Pardon me" (which seems American to me), many learners of French translate it as "Pardonnez-moi", which is a grossly inflated apology for something trivial, as it means "Forgive me" rather than "Excuse me".

  26. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    @Arthur1

    I suppose if this gentleman were in Paris trying to get off a crowded Metro train, he'd be saying, "excusez-moi, excusez-moi!" Non?

  27. Dan Milton said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    In Britain (or Australia?) "sorry" is used enough to need a shortened form "soz". See OED.

  28. GretchenJoanna said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    In the last year or two I've noticed here in northern California that wherever I am around people in stores, on the street, in elevators, people are always saying "Sorry," even if I am the one who bumped into *them*, or if we are standing a little closer than is comfortable, as though to preempt my possibly being offended by their encroachment on my space. I'm in my 60's, and it seems that it is usually people younger than me who are saying this. This discussion makes me want to pay closer attention to the usage, which I agree is meaning, "Excuse me," but in excess – I can't imagine people in crowded Japan using it under the same circumstances; they'd be chanting constantly.

  29. D-AW said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 11:12 am

    More for the non-apology apology files, from today's Globe and Mail:
    [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/councillor-mammoliti-mayor-ford-defiant-after-chaotic-toronto-city-hall-meeting/article16001988/]

    On Tuesday, after being asked, Mr. Mammoliti left the chamber but was allowed back in after a vote by his fellow councillors and an apology. “I apologize to you if I offended you or anyone else in this chamber but I do not and will not withdraw my comments with respect to city staff,” he said.
    [...]
    After his apology, Mr. Mammoliti told reporters that procedural bylaws require council members to apologize when asked to, but do not require the members to "actually feel sorry for what they've done. In my particular case, I can’t feel sorry for saying that city staff seem to be running city hall," he said.

  30. Stuart said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Another interesting thing about すみません is that it is the negative non-past of the verb 済む (sumu) meaning "to be finished". So, literally it means, "It's not finished", I guess implying something like, "I owe you one". Sometimes you hear people who are tired of hearing too many すみませんs say angrily, 済まないで済むと思うか? which means something like, "Do you think you can end this by saying it's not ended?"

  31. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    To follow up on Stuart's good note, this comes from a Japanese teacher who is a colleague in my Department:

    =====

    済む(sumu) or 済みます(sumimasu) means something has been done/completed/cleared. 済まない(sumanai) or 済みません(sumimasen)is the negative form of 済む/済みます meaning something hasn't been done/completed/cleared. Therefore, when it is used for apology, it probably means something like "I know what I have done (to you) wouldn't be cleared (no matter how deeply I regret or apologize to you)". (Sounds pretty intense, if you take it literally.) When it is used for appreciation, it probably means either something like "I can't fully complete (=express) my appreciation (for whatever you kindly did for me)", or " I apologize that I had to make you help me or do something nice to me". Personally, I think the latter represents Japanese sentiment more accurately.

  32. Dave O said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

    @GretchenJoanna

    They're probably displaced Canadians :)

  33. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    I suppose if this gentleman were in Paris trying to get off a crowded Metro train, he'd be saying, "excusez-moi, excusez-moi!" Non?

    Very unlikely. He would probably be saying "pardon!" and, when in London, think that the British (or is it only Southeast English?) "sorry!" is the equivalent one-word attention-calling quasi-apologetic interjection, like Spanish "¡perdón!" (though Hispano-Americans are more likely to say "[con] permiso"), Italian "scusi!", German "Verzeihung!" and so on.

  34. Ken Brown said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

    The normal British usage for "excuse me" is a direct equivalent of "get out of my way!". The second most common use means "I want to talk to you, pay attention!". It isn't apologetic at all, its used before committing a possible social violation, not after, there is nothing apologetic about it at all.

    "Sorry" is quite different. Along with "Thank you" and especially "please" it is one of the universal solvents of British English. People who don't use them sound aggressive and snooty, as if they are assuming they have the right to make you obey them. "Excuse me" and "pardon" just don't cut it.

    We can't help it. We're brought up that way. I've lost count of the number of children's stories I've read where the "magic word" turned out to be "please".

    We can't help it,

  35. Geoffrey Hooker said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

    I have heard (US) people using "sorry" or "I'm sorry" in the sense of "I didn't hear you, could you please repeat that?" but it is a marked construction.

    Also, on the different usages of the word sorry and apologizing, see :

    I'm Sorry, I Won't Apologize / by Deborah Tannen. The New York Times Magazine, 1996, July 21. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/nyt072196.htm

  36. marie-lucie said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

    Victor Mair:

    I suppose if this gentleman were in Paris trying to get off a crowded Metro train, he'd be saying, "excusez-moi, excusez-moi!" Non?

    He could say that, or "Pardon!" or "S'il vous plaît!" (Sorry! or Please!), or all three. "Excusez-moi" by itself would be more likely to be used after the fact, for instance after accidentally bumping into someone, rather than when apologizing in advance for unavoidable contact.

  37. Jo-Anne Andre said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

    It might be interesting to count how many times Rob Ford has said "sorry" over the last six months. Possible article title: the politics of apologies.

  38. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

    When I studied pragmatics, I recall a couple of papers on the use of "sumimasen", one by a non-native speaker analysing it in all instances as an apology form, and another by a native Japanese speaker refuting the first paper and showing it had a range of uses including thanking and uses more like "excuse me" in English as well as apology. I see if I can dig up the references.

  39. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=8626 was a semi-recent comment thread bearing on cross-linguistic issues in the discourse of apologizing (including my own boyhood confusion as to when "sumimasen" was the right equivalent for English "excuse me," but others probably made more substantive contributions).

  40. Charles Gaulke said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    On Canadian "Sorry" – This being a large and bilingual country, regional variation in pronunciation is often as great international, but the stereotypical "soh-ry" in Hark, A Vagrant is very accurate for Ontario at least. I've caught myself doing it. It's represented to great comic effect by the character Ellen (Martha Burns) in Slings & Arrows.

    As far as how much we apologize, I moved to Canada as a kid, so I don't know that I've really noticed a difference myself, but my parents, more set in their ways, have pointed out to me how often *I* say it, including to people who've bumped into me, etc.

    I did once have a roommate who actually apologized when told he apologized too much, but that didn't seem typical.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Thank you for reminding us of that earlier post which has much, including your own comment there, that is of relevance for the current post.

  42. Sravana said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

    I can't help being a bit miffed when someone bumps into me in the US and says "Excuse Me" while I say "Sorry." In my lexicon, "excuse me" in this context is, as Ken Brown notes, "get out of my way."

  43. MPC said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

    There's another joke:

    I'm sorry and I apologise have the same meaning.

    Except at a funeral.

    Would this joke work in American English or is sorry only an acknowledgement of fault?

  44. Dave Cragin said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 1:53 am

    In Chinese, you can say 对不起 (dui bu qi) and it often works like an American "I'm sorry." i.e., if you bump into someone, you can say 对不起.

    Or if they are speaking too fast: 对不起,我不明白你说什么. (Dui bu qi, wo bu mingbai ni shuo shenme. I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you said). So in these sentences, dui bu qi is quite analogous.

    An exception to this is at funerals. In the US, it's common to say "I'm sorry for your loss" or a shortened form "I'm sorry." (Do they say this in England? I don't remember….)

    In contrast, in China saying 对不起 (dui bu qi) can sound like you are apologizing for involvement with the death, so you don't say it. You can express shared grief to the bereaved, but in notably different ways than in English.

  45. Martha said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    MPC, that joke works in American English.

    I caught myself saying "Excuse me sorry" yesterday, after nearly running into someone. I realized I say it often (with no pause at all between "excuse me" and "sorry," at least not yesterday), because I have a tendency to expect people to see me coming and realize there's no room to go around them and then attempt to make room. I often nearly end up bumping into people. So I find myself needing to combine "get out of my way" with "I apologize for (nearly) bumping into you."

  46. bevrowe said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    This may be worth sharing.
    Some years ago I spent a summer with a family of Belgian aristocrats, French-speaking, of course, though living in a Flemish area. I was asking them about a few useful words in Flemish, in particular, how to say "Sorry". They told me that there was no Flemish word for "sorry" because "they just grunt".
    I was amused later, when I came to learn Dutch, that that language has a very rich vocabulary for making apologies.

  47. Colin Fine said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    Geoffrey Hooker : "sorry" meaning "I didn't hear you" is now ubiquitous in British English, but it has arisen in the last fifty years. When I was little in the sixties, it wasn't used. Oddly, I can't remember for sure what we did say. You certainly heard parents saying "Don't say 'what?', say 'pardon?'" to their children, but my parents regarded "pardon? " as lower class, so we didn't say it.

  48. mark worden said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    Knew a girl once who apologized when she bumped into furniture. "Sorry."

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