Cut the feeble apologies, just get out the sackcloth and flay yourself

Glenda Cooper on saying sorry
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The Independent Online
Who's sorry now? Well, yesterday it was that naughty Tony Blair, who came out and apologised for not owning up sooner to the pounds 1m donation given by Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone.

But then this year we've hardly been able to draw breath in between people stepping forward with yet another "mea culpa". Not since the Roman Catholic Church came up with the confession wheeze have we seen so many people proclaiming themselves candidates for forgiveness.

There was Tony Blair himself apologising to the Irish for the potato famine, William Hague saying sorry for entering the ERM on behalf of the Tory party, the Americans regretting their treatment of Native Americans. Ditto the Australians to the Aborigines, New Zealanders to the Maoris. Forget compassion fatigue, "sorry" fatigue is the suffering of the moment.

In fact the year became more marked by those who did not apologise than those who did. Remember, no one has as yet put their head above the parapet to take responsibility for the Millennium Dome, the Spice Girls or Tamagotchis.

But saying sorry did not always sit so easily with the British character. The spoof history 1066 And All That satirised traditional British feeling by castigating Edward the Confessor as a "Weak King" mainly because he was always "with difficulty prevented from confessing ... crimes as he has the habit of confessing everything whether he had done it or not".

But now that sorry is no longer the hardest word to say, and indeed for New Labour love means always having to say you're sorry, maybe there's some room for more confessions. William Wordsworth, who was yesterday accused of being a cruel bully to Coleridge, could express regrets to his fellow poet. Colderidge has also been owed a huge apology for years from the Man from Porlock who prevented him from writing more than the first few lines of Kubla Khan (the rest of us could breathe a sigh of relief). Henry VIII could apologise to - well where do we start - six wives, two lord chancellors, assorted sprigs of the nobility and an awful lot of monks for his bad behaviour. And as for the 20th century, well surely someone one day will get round to apologising for Michael Howard.

But is saying sorry ever enough? Yesterday Mr Blair conceded that the government should have not allowed the news to come out "in dribs and drabs" and that they should have focused on it earlier. Essentially, then, it is not that the policy was wrong or whether the money should have been accepted in the first place but that Labour is sorry the crisis has not been handled well. One spokesman speaking to a Sunday newspaper summed it up: "We have done nothing wrong but we have behaved as if we had." In her book You Just Don't Understand, which dissects male and female nuances of conversation, Deborah Tanner, a professor of linguistics, points out that men often seem confused that women appear to apologise all the time. "Women frequently say `I'm sorry' to express sympathy and concern, not apology," Professor Tanner says. "This confusion is rooted in the double meaning of the word sorry ... `I'm sorry' used figuratively to express regret could be interpreted as literally to mean `I apologise'."

So it's not only the prime minister's haircut - or Blairstyle as it's now affectionately known - that's calculated to appeal to the elusive women voter. It's even the figurative use of apologising. But Tanner is wrong to see women as the only sex who differentiate between two levels of sorry. Any woman who has heard a man mumbling apologies for coming in late, or seeing an ex-girlfriend, or failing to ring when they should, will have heard the "I'm sorry you're upset" line (with the strong subtext "but I find it incomprehensible you are").

It's at times like this when you sigh over the limits of the English language - a dilemma you don't suffer in Japan, where there are 50 ways to say you're sorry.

Much was made of the Japanese Premier's decision on the 1995 anniversary of VJ Day to use two particular words in expressing his deep remorse for the events of 50 years ago. For the first time Tomiichi Murayama used the word "owabi", which is the most emotive and intense way to express regret and self-reproach, and in a television interview he also used the word "shazai" described as "a strong form of apology ... which eliminates the ambiguities and shadings".

So what we want, Tony, is some sort of owabi or shazai. Your current apology just doesn't cut the silk. In our Oprah Winfreyed world only full penitence will do. Let's have a ritual apology with a grand procession round Silverstone. As the starting flag is lowered, let's see you leading the spindoctors flogging themselves with empty fag packets, and smearing their foreheads with the ends of Marlboro Lights. Perhaps it's time to create your own Ash Wednesday.