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Stiff Upper Lip

Stiff Upper Lip: a History

Ask a foreigner what trait they most associate with the English character, and it’s a fair bet that the stiff upper lip will be at or near the top of the list. But what does this rather peculiar phrase actually mean, and where did it come from?

Discipline in school
Discipline in school: He that chastiseth one, amendeth many
© TopFoto.co.uk
To “keep a stiff upper lip” is to remain defiant in the face of danger, to refuse to succumb to the evidence of fear – even if you feel it inside. Indeed, it implies a resistance to all displays of emotion, whether terror, anger, grief or any other similar weakness. The Victorian schoolboy manfully refusing to blub while being thrashed in front of his classmates would go on to play a vital role in the administration of the Queen’s empire.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have emotions, just that he was too self-possessed to embarrass others by showing them. In this respect, he was like a 19th-century version of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, calmly rational in the face of the most extreme provocations the universe had to offer.

American influence..?

Queueing for food, 1940s
Queueing for food in the 1940s
© TopFoto.co.uk
Ironically, the phrase itself appears to have come from American literature. Its first recorded usage was in a report in the one-time Boston newspaper the Massachusetts Spy, as long ago as 1815: “I kept a stiff upper lip and bought [a] licence to sell my goods”. Here the context seem to express little more than dogged determination, but the note of valiant bravery in the face of something frightful is already creeping into it by 1830, as this passage from an Ohio paper, the Huron Reflector, suggests:

“I acknowledge I felt somehow queer about the bows; but I kept a stiff upper lip, and when my turn came, and the Commodore of the P’lice axed [sic] me how I come to be in such company ... I felt a little better.”

One of PG Wodehouse’s late novels, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves! (1963), makes extensive fun of the idea of remaining unruffled in the face of adversity. By this time, the phrase was well on its way to having a comic ring to it. We may have congratulated ourselves on the stiff upper lip we managed to maintain during the wartime bombing of London, but the phrase now implied a certain sort of idiotic optimism and imperviousness to outside influence, a kind of whistling in the dark when it was clear that everything was going to the dogs.

The attitude was cruelly satirised in the Beyond The Fringe show, in a sketch set during wartime, in which a Squadron Leader (Peter Cook) gives instructions to a nervous young Flight Officer (Jonathan Miller):

I want you to take up a crate [plane], Perkins.
Fly over to Jerry.
And don't come back.
You are going to lay down your life, Perkins.
We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.
Goodbye sah! – Or is it au revoir?
No, Perkins, goodbye.

Stiff Upper Lips is also the title of a bubbly 1998 comic film starring Peter Ustinov and Prunella Scales.

… or home-grown?

Another theory has it that the phrase originally referred to the preference of British soldiers for stiffly waxing or even tarring their moustaches, so that they would stay perfectly still while the men were standing at attention. This was certainly an early 19th-century practice, known at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but it seems unlikely to account for the obvious overtone of maintaining a hold on the facial muscles while under duress.

Certainly, the face the soldier presented when he went into battle would be a brave one, his facial hair as unflinching as his resolve. But would this account for the phrase turning up in the Massachusetts Spy in 1815?

Click here to read about the extreme bravery of the people of Eyam in the Peak District, when it was struck by a violent outbreak of the Black Death in 1665