Word Games: Sorry

Nick Clegg was so, so sorry, but what does that actually mean?

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images

The word that launched a thousand televised speeches. A doleful mash-up passes in front of my eyes: Bill Clinton, Nick Clegg, Andrew Mitchell, Nick Clegg. The apology has become an obsession for politicians who think that to say sorry is so powerful that they avoid it when the matter in question is war (Tony Blair); and yet at the same time so meaningless that you can say it and press on regardless, because it won’t change a thing (Clegg’s sorry film). Does any other word have such powerless potency? To utter it is a news event, a spectacle. But what’s the point?

You remember what it was like: you’re five, you’ve snatched your friend’s toy out of their hands and they’re bawling. The mothers crowd – “Tell Snotface you’re sorry!” – and then you’re crying too, wriggling with shame and stubborn pride until the word is wrested out of your blubbering mouth. Then, miraculously, all is forgiven; after a moment of anguish, you’re free once again to commit petty toy theft. You’ll even, in time, turn the word into a playground parody of itself, ripped from meaning and value, transformed into a taunt: sorr-eeee.

The word comes from the old English, sarig (“distressed or full of sorrow”), which in turn comes from sairaz, meaning mental or physical or pain (a cousin of sar, or sore). The concept of someone being in a “sorry” state, wretched and worthless, is from the 13th century but the word’s use in apology only began in the early 19th century. This tells you something: in the literal sense, to be sorry is to describe an inner pain (amply etched on Nick Clegg’s pillowy face); it’s an internal state, not an external act. When you say sorry, you convince yourself that you’re doing something for someone else but you’re just describing your own misery, offering it up in sacrifice. To apologise is so often a self-serving act: a transparent bid for redemption. It’s all about you.

When Clegg explained why he’d made the video, he said, in that matter-of-fact, I’m-a-grown-up-politician way he’s fond of, that when he makes a mistake he believes in “holding his hands up”, coming clean and saying sorry. But it begs the question, as do many apologies: why the hell did you do it in the first place?