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April 8, 2012 / benrovik

On saying sorry: an open letter to the masters of the english language 1

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Dear Overlords,

I have far too many conversations that go like this.

Other person: I’m so sad because of my crippling misfortune.

Me: I’m sorry.

Other Person: Why are you apologizing?  It’s not your fault!  Or is it…?



In our dumb language, we don’t seem to have a clear way to say “I’m expressing sympathy for you.”  Instead, we ask poor little “I’m sorry” to fill that role, at the same time as it means “I take responsibility for the harm I caused you.”  This leads to innumerable iterations of the above dialogue, where the person expressing sympathy is obliquely claiming responsibility for crippling misfortunes they had nothing to do with, and the complainer has to reassure the sympathizer that he/she was not demanding an apology, just venting out some bummers. How old it gets!

Here’s my request, Overlords.  “Apologize” comes from the Greek “Apologia,” which is an explanatory defense of one’s motives or actions, frequently in connection with an injury or insult to some other party.  “Sorry” links to the Middle English “Sore,” which has to do with pain, grief, sorrow, pity and distress, but not guilt.

So, why don’t we let “I’m sorry” mean what it means, which is “I feel bad,” and let “I apologize” mean what it means, which is “I did you wrong, and here’s why”?

These two things are different things, which is why they have different words.  Please use the righteous axe of linguistics to sever their meanings forever, and set “I’m sorry” free.



PS How do you think “sorry” came to mean “I apologize” in common usage? Does it just sound more casual?  Or are we so allergic to offering legit apologies that we’d rather dance around the edges and try to avoid admitting fault?  e.g. instead of “I apologize for making you feel that way,” we say “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which shifts the burden of fault right back onto the aggrieved in a deliciously passive-aggressive way.

I wonder…?

Image credits Here and Here

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