Language Pulsations: Apology and Sorry

“Don’t you agree?!”

I looked up, startled out of my homework haze. I was sitting at a guard desk in a campus dormitory, mechanically checking student IDs, when a spunky freshman and her boyfriend addressed me.

“Agree about what?” I asked, surprised.

“That girls like sorry’s better than apologies,” she repeated.

“… Is there a difference?”

“Exactly!” the boyfriend said, obviously vindicated.

“No, there’s a difference!” the freshman from earlier protested. “An apology is, like, you’re apologizing that what you did made me feel bad. Saying sorry is, like, more personal.”

Then the elevator whisked them away, leaving a question hanging in the air: What is the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and “I apologize”?

Apology “comes from Ancient Greek apologia “a defense speech” and apologeisthai “to speak in one’s defense,” words that were formed from the Greek base logos “speech” and the prefix apo– “from, off.” From Greek, apologia was borrowed into Latin and then into French, where it phonologically adapted into apologie and then adopted by Anglo-Saxon speakers in  the 15th century, at which point it still maintained the original meaning of “defense (from charge or imputation)” or “(self-) justification.” We still use it this way in special contexts, such as “The Apology of Socrates” and “Christian apologetics.” Over time, this original meaning shifted into “expression of regret for wrong done,” first recorded 1590s and then the main meaning by the 18th century, when we see Shakespeare write in Richard III, “My Lord, there needs no such apologie.”

“Sorry,” on the other hand, comes to us from a very different source. It originates from a Germanic root sairaz “mental or physical pain” (from which the word “sore” also originated), which became Old English sarig “distressed, full of sorrow” and the word maintained this sense for several centuries–we find a 16th century Bible translation “There came moch people vnto him: some were glad, some were sory”–while going through a series of phonological and orthographic changes (sarig->sari->sarie->sary->serie . . .). However, the influence of “sorrow,” a word similar in meaning but etymologically different from “sorry,” influenced the semantic trajectory of the latter and by the mid-1800’s the apologetic, regretful, remorseful sense of “sorry” is well-attested.

“Apology” and “sorry” together demonstrate a pervasive characteristic of the English language: the presence of “lexical twins” or “lexical triplets,” pairs or trios of words that cover a very similar semantic field. The phenomenon of lexical twins has its roots in the invasion of the English Isles by the French-speaking Normans in the 1100s. For centuries after the Norman invasion, French was the language spoken by the English ruling classes and was the official language of the Royal Court, whereas Anglo-Saxon was relegated to the lower classes. As a result, English saw a huge influx of loanwords from French that coexisted alongside the original Germanic originals. There are now hundreds of these lexical twins and triplets:

Old English French Latin
Ask Question (v.) Interrogate
Holy Sacred Consecrated (adj.)
Fire (n.) Flame Conflagration
Sorry Apology

Over time, Romance and Germanic near-synonyms have shifted in meaning and developed unique connotations. Indeed, most of us would agree that the words above have related but distinctive shades of meaning and are appropriate in different contexts. George Orwell prescriptively noticed this phenomenon in his (unfortunately) popular and influential essay “Politics and the English language”:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. (Source)

Generally, words derived from Germanic ancestors are shorter, more concrete, and more direct, whereas Latinate counterparts are longer, more abstract, and regarded as more elegant (cf. Latin “defecate” to Germanic “shit”). Latinate or Romance words indicate an elevated register–a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting, such as science and research. In social interactions, elevated registers tend to indicate distance and non-intimacy, what linguists call negative politeness or negative face.

What, then, is the nature of the distinction between an “apology” and “saying sorry”? Do they follow the same pattern as other lexical twins? To answer this question, I decided to turn to some more informants, and I put the question to a selection of fellow 22-year-old college students: If someone did something upsetting to you, what would you rather hear them say: “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”? Why? In the responses and conversations that followed, two distinctions emerged: (i) a difference in register/face; (ii) a difference in the amount of responsibility for or contrition toward the offending action.

First, everyone agreed that sorry is more “informal” than apologize and indicates positive face (friendship, solidarity, intimacy, informality). Indeed, “sorry” has a greater lexical frequency and an idiomatic status that its lexical twin does not. One informant elaborated at length: “I’m sorry is a bit more intimate. If I were absent for a class, I would say ‘I apologize.’ If I’d done something really shitty, I would say ‘I’m sorry’… [Saying sorry] makes it feel like the thing you did was more personal.”

This quote leads into the second distinction: “apology” connotes a defensive posture toward the offending action. Informants claimed that “There’s a reluctancy to ‘apologize'”; “I apologize” is “faker” than “I’m sorry.” Saying “I apologize” is “disingenuous,” “less sincere,” and a means of “avoiding blame.” It seems that with “I’m sorry” you are both taking responsibility for your actions and expressing regret for them, whereas with “I apologize” there is no sense of regret: It’s the difference between saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “I’m apologize that what I did hurt you.”

This second distinction could be connected to the etymological roots of the words: deeply and historically, an apologia is a defense, a distancing from accusations, whereas sorriness is a state of being pained, sad, and regretful. Apologizing is an action for which a specific intentional or emotional state is not connoted. However, “sorry” is a predicate that directly expresses a set of feelings, emotions, and states of mind.

In the end, my research and field work vindicated the outspoken freshman: everyone I talked to, girls and guys, preferred to hear “I’m sorry” to “I apologize” after a wrong has been inflicted. This is because if you say “I’m sorry,” you intimately, personally, informally express regret for the action you took. If you say “I apologize,” you are distancing yourself from the situation and, in an etymological sense, you are defending yourself and your actions rather than expressing contrition or regret. So next time you have to apologize to a girl or a guy, make sure it’s a sorry and not an apology.

Agree? Disagree? What is your intuition about these words? Any errors? Add your thoughts in the comments below.


Everyone I talked to prefaced their response by pointing out that meaning of the words depends context or “how you say it.” Naturally, pragmatics–context, status, intention, inference, body language–can change everything. For instance, we imagined that, with the right delivery and in the right circumstances, “I apologize” could be more heartfelt and sincere than “I’m sorry.” Similarly, without the right body language, tone, and framing, “I’m sorry” can be just as defensive and insincere as apologizing. Additionally, we thought of several counterexamples. What about at a funeral, when people say “I’m sorry for your loss”? Or when you compose an email saying “I am writing to apologize for crashing my car into your porch. I am very sorry”? Well, if you crashed your car into a house, you have other things to worry about than pragmatics. Good luck with that.



Online Etymology Dictionary

Translation Directory


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