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What Happened to Britain’s Stiff Upper Lip?

A funny thing happened at Wimbledon this year: British player Andy Murray cried.

“I’m going to try this and it’s not going to be easy,” Murray said through tears, addressing the Centre Court crowd after losing the men’s final to Roger Federer.

Murray blubbered his way through a speech—and in doing so, endeared himself to a nation.

He’d been a moderately popular tennis player. But from that moment on, the British public no longer merely admired Murray. They loved him.

Had he’d burst into tears in an earlier era, he might have been mocked and shunned. But not in every earlier era.

There was a time, long before those stern Victorians, when Britain was a nation that wept a lot.

Historians says that seventeenth and eighteenth century visitors from mainland Europe recorded this behavior in diaries.

“A proper man and a refined woman would display their emotions openly,” says journalist Ian Hislop who has made a BBC TV series on the subject. “They would cry and you weren’t a civilized person if you didn’t.”

It was ingrained in the culture. Books were written about it, and codes of behavior taught.

So what changed? What transformed the British character into the more familiar one – of restraint and unflappability?

Hislop believes it was the French Revolution in 1789.

The British watched “some foreigners getting very excitable, out of control, passions unleashed,” says Hislop. “Look what happened.”

What happened was the rise of Napoleon, followed by decades of war.

Napoleon was to man who wore perfume, read books and looked at art.

The British response was the Duke of Wellington, a man of discipline who spurned creature comforts. Wellington then vanquished Napoleon on the battlefield.

In the years that followed, the British empire thrived. Self-restraint became the emotional expression of that, and it served the empire well.

The British people came to see their rule abroad not as repressive but as a civilizing mission.

Charles Darwin, better known for other observations, declared that “Englishmen rarely cry”—implying that everyone else did a little too much.

Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, says many British men at the time put themselves through feats of endurance: swimming the channel, climbing mountains, trying to find the source of the Nile.

The expeditions were “an extreme version of the stiff upper lip, proving that the Anglo-Saxon male could achieve anything, could suffer anything and come out the other end robust and manly,” says Dixon.

As for women, they were praised for putting up with a hard life, in silence.

It was a “backhanded compliment…to say to women, ‘You’re so great at suffering and having no power. Please carry on doing it,’” says Dixon.

But that didn’t last forever—women demanded and got the vote. What’s more, millions of men died in World War One because they followed the orders of incompetent officers. The idea of grinning and bearing things lost its appeal.

However, after a few years of social rebellion—and lots of partying—along came a second Napoleon: Hitler.

Britain’s wartime propaganda machine revived the idea of the stiff upper lip.

It is in newsreels: “Never in history has an entire people formed so frightful an ordeal so bravely. So, yes! England can take it.”

Joanna Bourke, a historian at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, cites another propaganda film, Fires Were Started.

A woman in military uniform is on the telephone, “and all of a sudden a bomb drops just behind her and she dives under the table. Just a second later, you see her crawling out, and she carries on doing her business,” on the phone, says Bourke.

The World War Two version of the stiff upper lip was admired around the world, especially in the United States.

It survives today, at least in how the world views Britons. They are seen as people who just get on with life. They kept calm and carried on through the IRA bombings in the 1970s and the London terrorist attacks in 2005.

Moreover, the British don’t grumble— even if they do make a point of saying: “Mustn’t grumble.”

Still, modern life has dealt blow after blow to the stiff upper lip. Most people put it down to a combination of TV, therapy and America.

“The most powerful arguments against the stiff upper lip were really medical ones,” says Thomas Dixon. “Both physically and mentally having a stiff upper lip, being repressed was bad for you.”

Brits were learning to let it all hang out, with the help of one figure in particular: Diana, Princess of Wales.

It’s well documented that when Diana died, millions of Britons cast aside what was often described as their ‘natural’ reserve, and wept openly.

They wept for someone who seemed to personify the new Britain—open, emotional, confessional. She seemed at war with the old order—stuffy, formal and cold.

The very public mourning of a nation was enough to make many Britons wonder just exactly what the national character was, or had become. That questioning continues to this day, with episodes like Andy Murray’s Wimbledon tears.

Ian Hislop says don’t be fooled: the stiff upper lip remains part of the British character.

He acknowledges that its beginnings in the nineteenth century were less than benign: “The flaws with the stiff upper lip do include it being used as a method of social control: ‘Don’t control, carry on.’”

But that “empire swagger” is gone for good. By the time it returned during World War Two, the stiff upper lip had a smile. Today, it sometimes sports a tear, too.

Will it keep evolving? Hislop thinks so. He says it’ll adapt to the time and place, re-emerging when needed. “Serious times require a certain amount of keeping it together,” he says.

If Hislop is wrong, and the stiff upper lip is dead, that’s fine, he says.

“No point in making a fuss about it, just deal with it and get on with life.”

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Dictators with dialects, finger spelling, and universal Inuit

Dialects are beautiful, ugly, inevitable, unhelpful, and of course, languages without armies.

Dialects are widespread– they exist in most languages. Millions, perhaps billions of people speak them. Some, like many Chinese, speak a regional dialect at home, and a standard form of the language in public settings.  And then there all those dictators who grew up speaking dialects. As a boy, Napoleon spoke Italian and Corsu — the home language/Italian dialect of the island of Corsica. The future Emperor of the French didn’t learn French until later. Hitler spoke an Austrian-inflected German. For his part, Gaddafi speaks a version of Arabic that isn’t widely understood, even within Libya. He comes from a Bedouin minority, which is reflected in his language.  This may amplify his otherworldlyness. More on all of that here.

Many languages began life as a series of dialects, which over time– and with the encouragement of a nation state– morphed in something with standardized vocabulary and grammar (Robert Lane Greene writes about this in his new book, You Are What You Speak).

In Arctic Canada, there’s an effort underway to standardize Inuit languages (or dialects if you prefer). It’s being organized by the Inuit language authority in Nunavut, the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit. Unlike the United States, Canada is chock-full of the institutions that make up a national language policy:  a bilingual federal government, provincial and territorial language commissioners and any number of panels that try to push the country’s languages in certain set directions.

In this case, the hope is to unite the Inuit people, spread out over thousands of miles, through a standardized language.  Inuits have had writing systems imposed on their languages, mainly by missionaries. According to this article, which cites Statistics Canada, the more popular writing system today is a syllabic one. A lesser-used alternative is the roman system. Many hours, days and years of debate will now ensue, as to which writing system to favor.

Carol and I discuss these questions of dialect and language in the podcast. We also take a stab at the following questions (with much help from the linked sources): Does Japanese have a word for looting? Is finger spelling a language, or perhaps a dialect of sorts of British sign language? Is the language of cartoons necessarily harsh? The cartoon discussion was brought on by an exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum. It’s about depictions of marriage over the years, to coincide with Britain’s royal wedding. There’s a nice slideshow here.

Listen here or below via iTunes.


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