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Stiff upper lip

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A person who is said to have a stiff upper lip displays fortitude and stoicism 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 when faced with adversity.[1] A sign of fear is trembling of the upper lip[citation needed], hence the saying keep a "stiff" upper lip.[3]


The following have often been cited as exemplifying the "stiff upper lip".

  • Sir Francis Drake finishing a game of bowls before embarking on the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
  • During the Battle of Waterloo, the Earl of Uxbridge's calm assessment of his injuries (he had lost his leg) to the Duke of Wellington after being hit by a cannonball.[4]
  • Rudyard Kipling's poem If—, first published in 1910.
  • During the sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852, soldiers famously stood in ranks on board, allowing the women and children to board the boats safely and escape the sinking.
  • In 1912, during the Terra Nova Expedition, Captain Lawrence Oates, aware that his own ill health was compromising his three companions' chances of survival, calmly leaving the tent and choosing certain death saying, "I am just going outside and may be some time."
  • In 1912, Captain Edward Smith directing the evacuation of the RMS Titanic before going down with the ship.
  • Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter, who would wear a bowler hat and carry an umbrella into battle in the Second World War, most famously at the battle for Arnhem Bridge.
  • In 1982, Captain Moody aboard British Airways Flight 9 from London to Auckland, on realising that all engines of the aircraft had stopped because of volcanic ash, announced to the passengers, "We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress." The pilots were eventually able to restart the engines, and safely divert the plane to Jakarta.
  • In 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 suffered a catastrophic engine failure that rendered all hydraulics inoperable, resulting in the aircraft being virtually uncontrollable, with the exception of the engine throttles. Captain Al Haynes kept a healthy sense of self-deprecating humour throughout the ordeal, which could clearly be heard on the cockpit voice recorder. The crew, along with passengers who were off-duty pilots and flight engineers, managed to crash land the aircraft at Sioux Gateway Airport in Iowa. In simulation scenarios, no crew has ever been able to make it to the airport, and the event is often cited as one of the best examples of crew resource management in an emergency situation.


The idea of the stiff upper lip is traced back to Ancient Greece – to the Spartans, whose cult of discipline and self-sacrifice was a source of inspiration to 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 judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment 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 students of the English public school system during the Victorian era. Such schools were heavily influenced by stoicism, and aimed to instil a code of discipline and devotion to duty in their pupils through 'character-building' competitive sports (as immortalised in the poem "Vitai Lampada"), corporal punishments and cold showers.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Keep a stiff upper lip Phrases.org.uk. Retrieved 20 February 2011
  2. ^ "The myth of the stiff upper lip", BBC
  3. ^ "Stiff upper lip". World Wide Words. 19 August 2006. Retrieved 4 February 2013.
  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

Further reading[edit]

  • Thomas Dixon (2015). Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199676057.

External links[edit]