By HENRY HITCHINGS
I am sitting in a cafe in a leafy part of South London. A teenager inadvertently bashes me in the face with his rucksack and I say “sorry,” as if on his behalf. Five minutes later, a young woman flattens my foot with her stroller and each of us blurts another “sorry.” Getting up to leave, I knock over my cup. A waitress descends on this little embarrassment with a cloth and an accusatory “sorry,” while I twice utter the same word.
What’s going on here? 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 is peculiarly English to use the word “sorry” to defuse the potential for conflict while also drawing attention to it. And I do mean English, not British: The Scots and the Welsh don’t go in for it anywhere near as much. Indeed, it seems to be a largely southern English, middle-class phenomenon.
The English “sorry” is a marker not of grace and decorum, but rather of a belief that one magic word has the power to decontaminate the world even as it both pacifies and reproves those who pollute it. “Sorry” is a mixture of decayed piety and passive-aggressive guile.
The stand-alone “sorry” was unknown to Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson. Only in the mid-19th century did it become common to say “sorry” rather than “I am sorry.” The adjective was divorced from the person feeling the sorrow, and soon ceased to signal even regret.
“Sorry” rose at the same time that the English began using “overfamiliar” as a term of reproach and “detachment” as a synonym for “aloofness.” Stand-alone “sorry” may have dressed like a gentleman, but his heart was made of India rubber.
Today, the English appear to be very good at apologizing for things they haven’t done, but not very good at apologizing for things they have done. They have a copious vocabulary of suave aversion and strategic self-effacement. The blithe “sorry” is a third cousin of the craftily casual adverb “incidentally” (which means “this is what I really want to say”), and of the phrase “I’ll bear that in mind” (which means “I am going to forget this immediately”).
“It’s my fault,” say the English when they are sure it’s your fault and want you to squirm. Since I’m (mostly) English myself, I should be writing “we,” not “they.” That’s just another evasion.
Henry Hitchings is the author of “Sorry! The English and Their Manners.”