Stiff upper lip

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This article is about the idiom. For the AC/DC album, see Stiff Upper Lip. For other uses, see Stiff upper lip (disambiguation).

One who has a stiff upper lip displays fortitude in the face of adversity, or exercises great self-restraint in the expression of emotion.[1][2] The phrase is most commonly heard as part of the idiom "keep a stiff upper lip", and has traditionally been used to describe an attribute of British people in remaining resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity.[1] A sign of weakness is trembling of the upper lip, hence the saying keep a stiff upper lip. When a person's upper lip begins to tremble, it is one of the first signs that the person is scared or shaken by experiencing deep emotion.[3]

Notable examples in British history include, Captain Lawrence Oates's understated act of Antarctic sacrifice: aware that his ill health was compromising his three companions' chances of survival, he calmly left his tent and chose certain death, Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before embarking on the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and Lord Uxbridge's calm assessment of his injuries (he had lost his leg) to the Duke of Wellington when hit by a cannonball during the Battle of Waterloo in the Napoleonic Wars.[4]

The ideal of the stiff upper lip is traced back to Ancient Greece – to the Spartans, whose cult of discipline and self-sacrifice inspired the English public school system; and to the Stoics. Stoic ideas were adopted by the Romans, particularly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, "If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now."[5] The concept reached England in the 1590s, and featured in the plays of William Shakespeare; his tragic hero Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so".[1] Poems that feature a memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism and a stiff upper lip include Rudyard Kipling's "If—" and W. E. Henley's "Invictus".[5] The phrase became symbolic of the British people, and particularly of those who were products of the English public school system during the Victorian era. Such schools were heavily influenced by stoicism, and aimed to instill a code of discipline and devotion to duty in their students through competitive sports, corporal punishments and cold showers.[5]

Despite strong association with the UK, there are indications that the phrase originated in the US. One of the earliest known references to the phrase was in the Massachusetts Spy, June 1815: "I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods." There are several more US references from early 19th century found, and by mid-century it became quite common, while the earliest British reference reported is from 1844.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Keep a stiff upper lip Retrieved 20 February 2011
  2. ^ "The myth of the stiff upper lip", BBC
  3. ^ "Stiff upper lip". World Wide Words. 2006-08-19. Retrieved 2013-02-04. 
  4. ^ "Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip". Metro. 2 October 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c Spartans and Stoics - Stiff Upper Lip - Icons of England Archived 12 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 20 February 2011

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