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Keeping a stiff upper lip
August 19, 2011 - Stephen Browne
I was reading an article by Theodore Dalrymple, an English physician and columnist, about the now sadly gone English tradition of the "stiff upper lip," expressed in exaggerated understatement.
To illustrate, he quoted a spoof English-English to American English glossary, written by an American visitor.
I may be wrong— I am absolutely sure. I don’t know much about— I am a specialist in. No trouble at all— What a burden! We must keep in touch— Good-bye forever. Must you go?— At last! Not too bad— Absolutely wonderful.
The author might have included an Irish-English translation as well. The Irish, though close neighbors geographically, are poles apart in their linguistic style, tending instead to wildly exaggerated overstatement.
Example: "Take an umbrella or you'll get wet."
Irish: "It's Noah's flood again, you'll be destroyed entirely!"
Though my heritage is more Irish, I've always admired the English gift for understatement. Years ago I saw a soundbite/interview with an English airline pilot who as I recall landed a plane with some tires shot out and a crazed terrorist sticking a gun in his ear.
Asked about the experience, he replied, "Well it was a bit dicey there for a moment."
Dalrymple gave an example from his own medical practice that he said still moves him many years later.
"I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead."
I saw an almost horrifying example of the stiff upper lip tradition in the French documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity." That was the one Woody Allen joked about in "Annie Hall," because it clocks in at four hours and 15 minutes of depressing WWII reminiscences.
One of the scenes that stood out for me (actually, the only one) was an interview with an old German druggist, who during the war was a Gestapo agent in occupied France. He was old and wizened, and had the coldest eyes you've ever seen.
"I will never understand the English," he said through a translator. "I remember when we went to arrest an English secret agent in Paris. We knocked down the door at five o'clock in the morning and he was shaving by the window. We gave the standard identification, 'German police, you're under arrest' and he said, 'Pity. It was such a lovely day.'"
I fear that tradition is almost gone in England, and with it Englishness.
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