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:
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.
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…”