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Hard to Say I’m Sorry

Sorry is just a word

A stencilled note saying I am sorry
The Hardest Word We Overuse

According to a recent survey, the average Brit says ‘sorry’ around eight times a day. One in eight of us say it once an hour. That’s more apologies thrown out than in any other country…except for Japan.

Ask yourself whether you’re one of the average or one of the eight. Then ask your friends which group they would put you in. You may be surprised to find the answers differ.

Sorry has become a throwaway remark for many of us. Half the time, a sorry doesn’t even register for either the apologiser or the apologee. This seems rather at odds with a word which exists to show an emotional depth of penance.

Of course we have the sorry for being wrong, for making a mistake, or for upsetting someone.

But we also have the sorry for not hearing. The sorry when someone bumps into us. The sorry for paying with a handful of change instead of notes. The sorry for stepping off the train first.

We are polite to the sorrowful degree of our inherent servility.

Is this a problem? After all, there are far worse words we could use with such abandon. But, as is often the case with language, the overuse of sorry has weakened the meaning it conveys.

Face it. We all make mistakes. How do we let people know that we recognise them? How do we ask for forgiveness?

How do we say we're sorry?

The origins of sorrow

Sorry comes from the Old English sarig, meaning pained or distressed. This in turn originates from the West Germanic sore, related to the modern German sehr.

Sehr translates as very. Sore relates to pain that is physical. Making sorry literally mean a severe pain or distress.

A display of sorrow maybe?

Well not quite.

The word sorrow bears no relation to the word sorry. Their similar definition comes from the assonance of the two words, being potential paronyms.

Sorrow comes from the Old English sorg. It has its origins in the German for care or worry. It is a distress that is more mental than physical.

But being sorry is not about being sorrowful.

The (un)appreciated sorry

It’s also common for people to use sorry as a passive rebuttal. To make oneself appear empathetic or understanding of others. Whilst not taking any responsibility.

Sorry if …that upsets you.

…that isn’t what you wanted to hear.

…that’s not convenient.

Sorry for …any misunderstanding.

…the confusion.