A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (88)?…


Keep a stiff upper lip

One of the qualities attributed to the Brits, at least in days of yore, was their ability to keep a stiff upper lip in all circumstances. The phrase conveys the sense of unflappability when all around you is going to pot, a not unusual turn of events when our ancestors were trying to enlighten a large part of the world as to the advantages of adopting British civilization.

From observing the BoJs it is the quivering bottom lip that is the presage to a burst of emotion, not the top so what is our phrase all about? It may have something to do with the fashion of the British soldiery of wearing moustaches. Indeed, following the Crimean War soldiers were specifically forbidden by army regulation from shaving above their top lip. Although beards were forbidden, this meant that all ranks who could do so were required to grow moustaches and some flourishing examples of the art of moustachioed topiary exist in the photographic records of officers and men serving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The order was only rescinded on 6th October 1916 by Lieutenant-General Sir Nevil Macready who so detested his own that he shaved it off immediately.

A moustache bouncing around in time to a quivering top lip would only accentuate the sense of fear or alarm in the wearer, you would think. All the more reason, then, to take whatever measures you can, to keep the lip from moving.

The problem with this explanation, alluring as it may be, is that the first appearance of our phrase in print predates the wearing of moustaches in the British Army – particularly as the wearing of facial hair was uncommon in the ranks until the middle of the 19th century. What is more the phrase has an American origin.

The Massachusetts Spy of June 1815 reported, “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought a license to sell my goods”. Fifteen years later the Huron Reflector used the phrase in the context we are more familiar with, “I acknowledge I felt somehow queer about the bows; but I kept a stiff upper lip…” Perhaps it is just a phrase that reflects the physical constraints we apply to our body to prevent our emotions being displayed and the Brits were just masters of the art. It was a phrase attributed to the Brits rather than one originating with them.

Churchill’s observation that the UK and the US are two nations divided by a common language is never more aptly illustrated than by the phrase keep your pecker up, an admonition we use in Blighty to give some encouragement to be brave and cheerful. In the US, of course, pecker is slang for a penis and a priapic down-in-the-mouth is probably the last thing you would want.

Here in Britain pecker is slang for a nose or mouth and owes its figurative origin to the way birds use their beak to peck at and manipulate its food. The Times of September 1845 gives a cruel but perfect illustration of the association of pecker with the snout, “Mr King..misstated the fact in saying that he had put a piece of lighted paper to the master’s nose while asleep in that house; it was his hot pipe that he applied to the sleeper’s nostrils, at the same time crying, Come, old chap, keep your pecker up”. A stiff upper lip might have come in handy then, methinks.


One response to “What Is The Origin Of (88)?…

  1. Paris Adèle May 7, 2016 at 1:16 am

    If you ever get a chance, the film Stiff Upper Lips is a good laugh.

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