Monday, 2 March 2009

On apologies

A correspondent writes to ask one of those annoying questions which I feel I should know the answer to, but then realize I don't, without a bit of research! Why do we say my apologies, in the plural?

The word apology has been around a long time. Shakespeare uses it half-a-dozen times, always with its sense of 'formal justification or explanation', and always in the singular. If Shakespearean characters want to apologise, in the modern sense of 'regret', they say such things as I cry you mercy. The OED has no examples of plural usage until quite modern times.

This suggests to me a pragmatic explanation, focussing on the 'century of manners'. The 18th century strikes me as being the time when people might have felt one apology wasn't enough, so they really went in for pluralizing it. The sense of 'regret' was strong by then, as can be seen several times in Boswell's Life of Johnson - 'Johnson walked away to dinner there, leaving me by myself without any apology; I wondered at this want of that facility of manners'. But there are no plurals in the Life.

An early instance of the plural use is in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726): 'at last he plainly invited me, though with some apologies, to be surgeon of the ship'. By the time Jane Austen was writing, at the end of the century, it was common, as this example from Pride and Prejudice illustrates: 'Her ladyship, with great condescension, arose to receive them; and as Mrs. Collins had settled it with her husband that the office of introduction should be hers, it was performed in a proper manner, without any of those apologies and thanks which he would have thought necessary'. By the time Dickens was writing, fifty years later, it was found with ironic uses too. Bleak House, for instance, shows both the regular use and the ironic one. 'With all apologies for intruding...', says Mr Bucket. And we are told that Mr Weevle 'who is a handy good-for-nothing kind of young fellow, borrows a needle and thread of Miss Flite and a hammer of his landlord and goes to work devising apologies for window-curtains, and knocking up apologies for shelves'.

So, I'm putting my money on the 18th century as the time when this usage became fashionable. I'd be interested to hear of anything earlier.

We keep upping the ante today, of course. A hundred apologies. A thousand apologies - the most popular usage, which has appeared as the title of a TV show, a music album, and more. Even a million apologies. And (especially since the economic crisis) a billion or trillion apologies.


  1. I bumped into at the TFM show last week - or to be more precise, I searched you out there. My big business plan is still to link linguistics and semiotics to marketing in a more explicit manner, though my ideas are still to be crystallised (sic).

    But what I want to know is, why is the stereotypical phrase for the 1970s Indian a "thousand" apologies rather than a hundred or a million?

  2. I've no idea, and would welcome opinions! I can see why it would be used in 'a thousand thanks' - the alliteration. Maybe that was the model for 'apologies'?

    English isn't the only language that likes 1000, and it's interesting that alliteration plays a role in French too - 'mille mercis'.

  3. Perhaps "apologies" is plural like "thanks" through analogy as well?

  4. There does seem to be a tendency for elaboration once it is felt that an existing form is in some way inadequate. I expect we have all noticed that we are now frequently asked in shops not ‘Can I help you?’, but ‘Can I help you at all?’

    Similarly, ‘yes’ often no longer seems a satisfactory form of affirmation and we may feel obliged to say ‘absolutely’. Following the thesis of decay and regeneration that Guy Deutscher puts forward in ‘The Unfolding of Language’, we might, if a little fancifully, imagine ‘absolutely’ being shortened to ‘slutely’ and eventually ‘slute’ might become the normal word for our ‘yes’. ‘Slute’ in turn would be felt inadequate and some new elaboration would occur, which would itself be eroded . . .

  5. In Armenian too, Professor, people often say 'a thousand apologies'. But it has some specific connotations like irony, exaggeration, and it also depends on one's preference of expression, to deliberately sound pathetic, I guess.
    If an Armenian student should use 'a thousand apologies' it would strike me as Armenian interference.
    Indeed, couldn't it happen that the usage, being typical of some other languages like French You mention, penetrated into English via non-native use, influenced by their mother tongue?

  6. Certainly possible. There are clear cases in the history of English of that kind of influence from French, e.g. legal idioms in the Middle Ages.

  7. Dear Professor,
    I'm writing from Italy, where we say "mille grazie" or "grazie mille", i.e. "a thousand thanks" ("mille" being the Italian for one thousand).
    We don't say, though, "a thousand apologies", while we use "tante scuse" (i.e. "many apologies"). Nonetheless, people feel free to multiply their apologies at their own discretion, therefore there are individuals who surely say "a thousand (or more) apologies".
    Roberto Di Scala

  8. On another blog I read, there was a recent question about the use of hope in the plural, which seems to have common use in US English but is less common in UK. I wonder if these share similar reasons for their introduction, as they seem to share similar timeframes. I assume that there's a large random element why the plural apologies would seem normal in UK English today while hopes seems, to some at least, odd.

  9. A plural use of hope is recorded since 1613, according to the OED, and there's certainly no US bias in the examples given, which include Marvell and Macaulay. Maybe the sense of a US usage has come from the associated countable singular usage, as in some hope(s) and not a hope.

  10. Interestingly, apologies have attracted a lot of interest in recent days, following the Gordon Brown 'say sorry' saga. I was interviewed by Radio 4's PM programme during the week about the history of 'sorry', and I see fragments of this interview have now appeared in BBC News Online.

  11. We say a thousand apologies (mil desculpas) in Portuguese.