Just Not Sorry is a new app that aims to draw attention to the use of apologetic language and the excessive use of sorry. People, and especially women it has been claimed, need help to be more forthright and assertive in their emails. This raises the question: why do we say sorry? And is it necessarily a sign of weakness?
The word sorry goes right back to the earliest stages of the English language, as spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. Tracing its history from Old English to the present day reveals an interesting development, in which there is a marked change from the expression of genuine heartfelt sorrow and remorse to regret for minor inconvenience. The key shift occurs in the 19th century and is accompanied by the change from “I am sorry” to plain “sorry”, thereby creating a distancing effect, taking us a further step away from the apology as a statement of personal distress to a more formulaic use. In his history of English Manners Henry Hitchings links this to the 19th-century association of politeness with detachment and aloofness, and the emergence of the concept of the “stiff upper lip”.
We still use sorry to express sincere distress or compassion – “I was sorry to hear of your loss”. But its meaning has now sufficiently weakened that to convey heartfelt regret requires intensifying adverbs: “I’m truly sorry”, “I’m extremely sorry”. The most recent quotation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary encapsulates the problem over the use of sorry today: “‘Well, I’m sorry,’ she said, though she didn’t look sorry, or sound sorry.” You can say sorry, but you don’t necessarily mean it.
Read more: The Independent