“Stiff Upper Lip”

A 1963 novel by a quintessentially British author.

I was directed to the (British, as you can tell from “mum“) Mumsnet.com website because, in a discussion of Americanisms, someone nicely posted a link to NOOBs. Looking around on the discussion, I noted one person who listed the expression “stiff upper lip” as an Americanism. Another commenter responded: “I beg to differ. That’s really quite Brit.”

The first person was right.

Learning that surprised me, because the expression, suggesting stoic keeping calm and carrying on,  is so strongly associated with the British national character and lexicon. But so is “bumbershoot,” and that word is as American as a McDonald’s apple pie.

The OED confirms that with these early citations (Thomas Haliburton was Canadian):

1815   Massachusetts Spy 14 June    I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.

1837   T. C. Haliburton Clockmaker 1st Ser. (ed. 2) x. 77   Its a proper pity sich a clever woman should carry such a stiff upper lip.

1852   H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin I. x. 152   ‘Well, good-by, Uncle Tom; keep a stiff upper lip,’ said George.

The popularity of the phrase was boosted by a oft-reprinted poem by the Ohioan Phoebe Cary (1822-1871), “Keep a Stiff Upper Lip,” whose last stanza is:

Through childhood, through manhood,
Through life to the end,
Struggle bravely and stand
By your colors, my friend.
Only yield when you must;
Never “give up the ship,”
But fight on to the last
“With a stiff upper lip.”

Not until 1887 does a British example appear, from The Spectator:  “The Financial Secretary, who, it is supposed, will have a stiff upper lip and tightly buttoned pockets.”

As this Ngam Viewer chart shows, the phrase continued to be more popular in the U.S. through the early 1940s:screen shot 2019-01-16 at 9.36.45 am

In the fall of 1937, something–I don’t know what–seemed to happen to establish the phrase’s connection to British people. On November 7, the New York Times used it in reference to the Duke of Windsor.

screen shot 2019-01-16 at 9.51.18 am

More important, on November 19 Damsel in Distress opened. The movie featured a number, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by his brother George, and sung by Gracie Allen, George Burns and Fred Astaire, that took the expression’s Britishness as a matter of course. It starts off:

What made good queen Bess
Such a great success?
What made Wellington
Do what he did at Waterloo?

What makes every Englishman
A fighter through and through?
It isn’t roast beef, or ale, or home, or mother,
It’s just a little thing they sing to one another.

Stiff upper lip, stout fellow,
Carry on, old fluff.
Chin up, keep muddling through.

Stiff upper lip, stout fella
When the goings rough
Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo too

And, in case you could use some delight in your life (who couldn’t?), here it is:

From then on, upper-lip stiffness was more and more thought of as a British thing. In 1940, the New York Times, reporting on English children coming to America to escape the war, “In the face of a barrage of questions and attentions from the curious, the English children trickling into this country in the past few months have maintained a solid front of poise, courtesy and the traditional stiff upper lip.”

In 1944, The New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town item with the title “Stiff Upper Lip,” summarized this way in the magazine’s internal filing system:

An American officer stationed in a remote English village writes us that he didn’t have much to do during the cold winter evenings while waiting for the invasion except read the books in the local lending library. He says that they served beautifully as reminders of certain quirks and crotchets of the native soul, and he gives an example. This is the opening sentence of an autobiographical volume he found: “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum one.”

(I learned through a Google search that the book in question was a 1943 novel, The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin, and that the actual first sentence was longer than the New Yorker quote. The whole thing: “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.”)

The difference between “bumbershoot” and “stiff upper lip” is that the former was never adopted by the British, while the latter has been. You can tell that by series of citations in the OED, all from British sources.

1961   A. O. J. CockshutImagination of Charles Dickens viii. 116   He oscillated between indignation, self-pity, and reticence of the stiff-upper-lip English school.

1961   John o’ London’s 19 Oct. 447/2   The second film contains a firmly disciplined..undercurrent of Miniverish stiff-upper-lippery.

1963   Listener 3 Jan. 42/1   It was all very improbable and too stiff-upper-lippish to have been written by anybody but an anglophile Frenchman.

1973   New Society 31 May 483/2   MPs, in praising stiffupperlippishness, used sex as a stalking horse.

1977   Broadcast 14 Nov. 10/3   The British are stiff upper-lipping through power cuts.

I suppose it caught on in the U.K. because of the lesson in the expression, “if the shoe fits…”–the British version of which, I just learned, is “if the cap fits…”



18 thoughts on ““Stiff Upper Lip”

  1. Ian Hislop (editor of Private Eye) did a 3-part BBC telly series on The Stiff Upper Lip in 2012 and I remember him mentioning it was initially an American expression. I can’t find any clips online that prove this, but a blog post by Thomas DIxon, an academic at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions and a consultant on the show, makes reference to it while discussing the programme:

    “In the case of ‘stiff upper lip’, the phrase has American origins (as was also mentioned in the first episode). The earliest uses I have found come from early nineteenth-century American sources, including military marching songs, religious poems, and works of physiognomy and phrenology […] Even by end of the nineteenth century the phrase still appeared in quotation marks, and was sometimes explained as an Americanism. But I think it is fair, nonetheless, to say that a culture of emotional restraint and stoical determination was on the rise in Britain, even before the phrase, ‘stiff upper lip’, which became attached to it during the first decades of the twentieth century, came to prominence.“

    Then he mentions the 1937 Gershwin song you reference.

    As an aside, The Small Back Room was made into a 1949 film (which I saw a few years ago) by Powell & Pressburger, the team behind A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. However, the lead character (played by David Farrar) seems a not fully stiff upper lip type, certainly in the Wiki description: “embittered”; suffering “alcoholism” from self-medicating as his painkillers don’t work; “self-pitying, self-destructive behaviour”.


    1. BTW you mention The Spectator in 1887 as the first British reference, but Dixon’s blog post referenced above says “Dickens died in 1870. The following year, his journal All the Year Round, carried an article on ‘Popular American Phrases’ in which to ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ was explained as meaning ‘to remain firm to a purpose, to keep up one’s courage’.” So it is a kind of predating, except the phrase is not being used so much as being pointed to as a presumably interesting foreign saying.

  2. Not to put too fine a point on it, but watching the clip, it looks as though Gracie did ALL of the singing. George and Fred merely mugged and danced.

  3. As a Brit, I have to say (1) I have never heard the word bumbershoot before; (2) I would bet my bottom dollar (shirt? last shilling?) that that no Brit in 1928 said “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum one.” – perhaps an aluminium one, though! (3) this “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme is just nonsense. And while we are on the subject of Americanisms used to characterise Brits, why do Americans write that Brits say “veddy” instead of “very”? I come across this from time to time, and can’t figure it out!

    1. I have a UK (Cassell) edition of The Small Back Room from 2000 and it does indeed say aluminium. BTW the character was talking during the war about an event about 15 years earlier, not actually speaking in 1928. And while I am here, the author is Nigel Balchin (middle name Marlin, acc to Wikipedia), not Nigel Malchin. He was a psychologist and Army Council deputy scientific adviser and by the end of the war (when he was 36) that “back room” job came with the rank of brigadier. More about him here: http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Nigel-Balchin-latest.pdf

    2. When I read something with American spelling, I often don’t even notice “aluminum” and mentally read it as “aluminium”. Same with math/maths, I think.

    3. On “veddy” for very, I have to say I allude this occasionally myself as a take-off of the Celia Johnson variety of the English accent. The half-rolled ‘r’ sounds like ‘dd’. It goes with ‘offley’ (awfully), ‘awf’ (off), thenkyou, systim, etc. (My olde husbande still says ‘systim’.)

    4. As the line in the post implies–and the linked-to post, which I recommend reading, lays out in detail–in fact, no Brit has ever said “bumbershoot,” except in the context of wondering why Americans think it’s a British word. On “aluminium,” see my reply to narmitag, below.

      On “veddy,” in addition to Catherine Rose’s comment, there’s a post on the subject at the excellent Dialect Blog. (http://dialectblog.com/2012/01/10/was-there-a-veddy-british-r/) The writer, Ben Trawick-Smith, says, “One of the supposed traits of older types of British Received Pronunciation is that /r/ can be a tapped sound (… similar to the ‘tt’ in American ‘butter’). In ‘traditional’ RP [received pronunciation, as in the Queen and the old BBC], this typically occurs in between vowels, as in words like ‘very’ and ‘terrible,’ resulting in the (wrong) impression that these words are pronounced ‘veddy’ and ‘teddible.’

      “It’s clear that this was, in fact, something that at least some RP speakers did who were born before World War I or so … This is obvious in the speech of, say, Noël Coward (born in 1899).”

      In the comments section (which I recomend), Trawick-Smith adds, “the alveolar tap is very much alive and well in regional accents in the North of England, Scotland, Wales, and even a few types of Irish English.”

      1. Incidentally, although I’ve never seen a British usage of “bumbershoot”, I’m re-reading Ulysses at the moment and in the Scylla and Charybdis episode (in the library), I did spot the line “Crosslegged under an umbrel umbershoot he thrones an Aztec logos”. Whether “umbershoot” is an Irish term for an umbrella, I don’t know.

      2. That is fascinating. I have never seen any evidence of Irish use of “bumbershoot.” It seems like Joyce, somehow, picked up on this fairly recent bit of regional American slang. Or else it was pure coincidence.

      3. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for reading about bumbershoot here.

        I was telling some friends about the word a few months ago and one of them is a comics fan. He told me that in the Batman comics, the Penguin is known as the bumbershoot bandit. This caused much smirking among the rest of the company, as “bum bandit” is a derogatory term for a homosexual.

      4. ““the alveolar tap is very much alive and well…”
        Gosh, that’s a relief!

    5. “Bumbershoot” is used by the Lancastrian character Daphne in an episode of “Frasier” and Frasier himself repeats it as a conscious Briticism. I am English and this was the first time I had ever heard it, so I assumed it was northern dialect, but it is not even that!

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