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Apology

I AM told that Japanese has two words for apology, one formal, the other more heartfelt, and that Mr Murayama, the Japanese premier, used both when he apologised for his country's war crimes. Neither was right for Lord Slim, president of the Burma Star Veterans' Association.

"The one word that is always missing," he is reported to have said, "is sorry," his point presumably being that sorry does at least carry a clear note of sadness, if not actual contrition.

English has just the one word for apology, and for a long time it had a double function, one of which had nothing to do with remorse. Sir Philip Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie, which he finished in 1580, was a triumphant vindication; there were no regrets in it. The Greek apologia meant a defendant's speech; an apology was a stout answer to critics, not exactly what our veterans wanted from the Japanese. However, it could also be an acknowledgement that there was criticism to be answered, and thence a proper expression of regret. The context told which. A Victorian Lord Slim might well have asked for something less ambiguous.

But both words have moved on. has lost its double meaning (we have apologia for the Sidneian one), and sorry its ancient associations with misery, wretchedness and grief. A Japanese not too familiar with English nuances might be puzzled by Lord Slim's apparent preference for the weaker word. "Sorry" is what you say when you tread on a fellow-passenger's toe; only if the damage looks as though it might be serious would you say "I apologise". "I'm sorry", says a truculent diner, "but the fish is badly uncooked." No he's not.

Naughty children are told to say they're sorry. The grown-up word is apologise.

Nicholas Bagnall

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