This is a very British way of saying, “I didn’t hear what you said–please repeat.” The OED dates it to the mid-sixties, and it was still novel enough in 1972 for Tom Stoppard to have sport with it in his play “Jumpers”:

Miss Moore, is there anything you wish to say at this stage?

Dotty (in the sense of “Pardon?”): Sorry?

Bones: My dear, we are all sorry

I’ve felt for a while Sorry? is gaining ground over here. But for a long time I didn’t know any way of finding out. The databases and corpora I usually consult primarily deal with published texts, and Sorry? is, of course, something that’s said far more than it’s written. Moreover, none of my sources pay any heed to punctuation, so any search would bring thousands of leaden I’m sorrys and sorry states for a single piece of gold.

Then Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania advised me that the Corpus of Contemporary American English over at Brigham Young University indeed allows you to include punctuation in searches. Bingo. A search of broadcast transcripts yielded about 150 hits, most recently this from a journalistically hard-hitting ABC Primetime Live segment called DIRTY DINING: WAITER DROPS FOOD, TRIES TO SERVE IT:

GREG-1ACTOR2-# Here you go. And that’s it. (Voiceover) And before they can take that first bite… DINER-1MALE2-# Guys? One of your sandwiches, he just dropped it. ACTRESS-1FEMALE2# I’m sorry? DINER-1MALE2-# He just dropped one of your plates. The sandwich went on the floor, right here.

And this from a 2010 CNN interview:

KING: The mood there must be pretty good, huh? LAVANDERA: I’m sorry? KING: The mood must be pretty good?

The sharp-eyed will notice that in both those cases the speaker said “I’m sorry?” rather than simply “Sorry?” This is the case with a considerable majority of the COLA hits, one exception being this double-sorry from a segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. It starts off with the host, Neil Conan, interrupting a long statement by a caller, Eric:

CONAN: Eric – I’m sorry. Eric? ERIC: Sorry? Go ahead. CONAN: I was to ask you if you had any more. ERIC: Oh, no. I’m, you know, the only concern that I have is as far as, you know, I mean, everybody is concerned about their privacy.

Now that I examine the quote, it seems that both Eric and Conan are saying “sorry” to actually apologize. In any case, my hypothesis is that Americans, as is their wont, have subtly altered the British Sorry? into the more literal I’m sorry? Agreement, disagreement, explanation and any other amplification welcome.

50 thoughts on ““Sorry?”

  1. Now, I’d have said that the British (of whom I am one) often do add the “I’m” to “sorry”, and mean it too, in (what I would regard as a typical slightly self-deprecating British way) that they are half-apologis(z)ing by inferring it’s their fault for not having understood (as opposed to heard) what was said.
    Have I lost you? Hope not. Sorry …

    1. Yes, in my experience, Americans definitely say “I’m sorry?” much more often in conversation than “Sorry?” when they want the interlocutor to repeat what was just said; whereas Brits just say “Sorry?” to mean the same thing, while reserving “I’m sorry” when they’re apologis(z)ing.

  2. Sorry is used this way in Canada too. We use sorry a lot. when we bump into people on the street we say “sorry.” It is claimed by some that when we bump into a lamp post we say “sorry”. I think that’s a myth!?

  3. If I’m remembering correctly, Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) said this with some frequency on Moonlighting back in the late ’80s. “I’m sorry?” meant that she hadn’t heard what was said and/or couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

    1. “Pardon [me for your not being clear]” seems to be taking the blame for the speaker’s failed effort.
      “What [did you say]?” seems fair.
      At the end of the line would be a grunt: “Huh?”

    2. Alan S.C. Ross, “U and Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics,” 1954:
      (U) is upper- class speech versus (Non-U) speech of middle-class people trying to attain upper-class status. An example of U is “What?” vs Non-U: “Pardon?”

      1. “Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
        Runs the red electric train,
        With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
        Daintily alights Elaine.”

        From “Middlesex” by John Betjeman.

  4. Interesting… I think U when I hear a Brit say “Pah-den?” as opposed to say, a hillbilly (non-U), with a hard arrr in “Pardon?”

  5. Upon further reflection, I’m thinking Maddie Hayes said “Excuse me?” instead of “I’m sorry?” Either way, it was annoying.

    1. “Excuse me” is often misunderstood between English & Americans. In England it means, “Do you mind if I interrupt?” or, “May I squeeze past?” I never hear it used as a apology, which would be “sorry”.

      1. “Excuse me”, only after sneezing – or burping – in company or public.

      2. I suppose it is the same as “forgive me” (used in a light, formal sense).

      3. The meanings of “excuse me” in the U.S. are manifold. Probably the dominant strain, invoked by Steve Martin’s “Well, excuuuuuuuuse me!” and the saying “Excuse me for living!”, are hostile and mock-incredulous.

    2. That’s correct. Maddie Hayes said, “Excuse me?” Indeed, Cybill Shepherd uses the phrase to this day.

  6. It may be that upwardly-mobile working class Britons in the sixties, finding their “What?” and “Eh?” were deprecated by the middle class they were aspiring to join, and that the “Pardon?” of the middle class was laughed at by the posh, escaped into the neutral “Sorry?”. As far as I know, “Sorry?” has survived as an almost class-neutral expression for 50 years, a remarkable achievement in these class-arsed isles.

  7. I’ve somehow picked up the habit of saying “which?” for “what”/”sorry”. Got it from a friend of mine from Waterford via Dublin. Not sure if it’s a common Irish/Waterford thing or just a particular quirk of my friend. I also sometimes say “hey?” (after a Cornish friend), but I’ve a lot of time for “Sorry?”.

  8. The REAL English downmarket version is “Yerwha’?” This can occasionally be heard chanted at football grounds by one set of fans to indicate, sarcastically, that the chanting or singing of the opposing team’s fans is inaudible.

  9. The first half of my life, in the northeast (PA & NY), we used “What?” in polite company, or “Huh?” with close friends and family. I didn’t hear or use “Sorry?” until moving to Texas in 1980. I can’t verify it as a Texan-ism, however, because the person I heard it from the most was a Californian who’d moved here a couple years before me, so I don’t know if she picked it up here or brought it with her. Others in our “small circle of friends” use it, too, including native Texans, so I can’t pinpoint its origin. I know only that I now use it, too.

  10. I definitely use sorry in this context. I didn’t realize it was a British thing, but I do watch a lot of British televsion and maybe I’ve picked it up from there. Very interesting!

  11. I lived in New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, and Houston before moving abroad in 2001. I’ve now been living in the UK (in a northern suburb of London) for over four years. In the U.S., I heard “sorry?” for “I didn’t catch that” everywhere; here in the UK I hear only “pardon”. “Pardon?” is one of the few Britishisms I just can’t get used to, especially when I hear a parent saying it to a young child. Since when do parents ask pardon of their toddlers?!? It’s made me aware of the meaning behind “sorry”, which I used for 44 years without ever thinking about.

    1. My understanding would be not that the parent was asking to be pardoned but the the parent was saying “I can’t believe you just said/did that”. It’s all in the context.

    2. Agreed, it’s said with irony. As in “I can’t believe you just said that”!

      And they say americans don’t get irony….

  12. Both “Pardon?” and “I’m sorry?” are also used as part of a telling-off. So, as a schoolteacher, I will regularly respond to some ridiculous lie or excuse by saying “I’m sorry?” in a raised, I-don’t believe-what-you’ve-just-said tone of voice (plus raised eyebrow).

    Hee hee…

  13. “Sorry?” would be a slightly more formal way of saying it… it everyday talk, it’s far more common to utter a “You what?”

  14. “You what” is pronounced in classic East End-ish as “Yuh wo’?” or sometimes “You wo’?” The apostrophe stands for the missing “t.” Oldies say “Henh?” all up in the nose. In all of these cases it’s an aggressive interrogatory and not necessarily meant to mean “What did you say?”

  15. Just to muddy the waters a little here, ‘Sorry?’, ‘What?’ and ‘You what?’ have been mentioned, but equally well used in this context is ‘Do what?’

  16. As a Londoner I hardly ever say ‘what?’ if I have misheard or require repetition. It appears vulgar, certainly more contesting the person speaking than inviting them to continue or just signifying more a complete incredulity of the thoughts just expressed. I would say it in jest or use it to be intentionally confrontational. I think I am far more likely to say, ‘pardon?’, ‘sorry?’, ‘excuse me?’ or in fact just ‘eh?’, these phrases invite the other party to continue.

  17. I’ve always thought that “sorry?” in this context was short for “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that (hear that)?”

  18. Terry Eagleton: ‘The lower class says “ay?”, the lower middle class says “pardon?”, the middle class say “sorry?”, and the upper class say “what?”‘

    1. That shocks me. I’ve always thought of “pardon” as the most formal, and therefore the most “posh”. “What?” sounds the least formal to me.. almost rude… My British grandparents have corrected me for using “what” instead of “pardon” and they’re upper class.

  19. In Canada, “sorry” is completely interchangeable with things like “what,” “excuse me,” “pardon me,” “pardon,” when asking someone to repeat what they said. Americans might say “huh?” for this. My grandmother said “eh?” for this XD. I tend to use “what?” with family members, and “sorry?” with friends to be more polite. BTW sorry is almost always pronounced “sohry” like “soary” in Canada, rather than the American “sahry/sawry”.

  20. English East Midlands:

    My default is ‘Sorry?’ though I sometimes say ‘You what?’ (a bare ‘What’ is too abrupt). But more frequent, more polite and less jocular, is my ‘Say again?’ I haven’t heard ‘Whatsay?’ for years, and then only from one particular oldie. It’s an interesting reversal of the US ‘Saywhat?’ – I wonder which came first.

    Has anyone mentioned that ‘Pardon?’ is short for ‘I beg your pardon?’ That’s always been my understanding, anyway, and I remember ‘BegPardon?’ from my childhood.

    This Irish writer believes the Canadians and Irish lead the ‘sorry’ world: https://www.independent.ie/life/the-sorry-state-of-us-why-do-we-always-apologise-30471597.html

    He writes:

    Stepping into my (not yet officially recognised) role as a shrink to the world’s nations, I suspect we may both bear an inferiority complex having ‘grown up’ in the shadow of our larger and culturally louder neighbour, the ones whose nationalities we are mistaken for every time we go abroad.

    A childhood spent craning our necks at our bigger siblings has lead to insecure adult nations subconsciously apologising for existing at all. Or perhaps blaming historical oppression for the fact that I’ll apologise for not having exact change is a bit of a stretch. Either way, sorry has undeniably become a filler word in our vocabulary, peppering our speech just as frequently as hesitant “umms” and “aahs” and the reassurance-craving punctuation, “do ye know what I mean?”

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