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I’m currently reading “Sorry” by Max Davidson.  I’ve absolutely no idea how this tome of wisdom arrived on my bookshelf. I have no recollection of buying it. I can only conclude that someone give/lent it to me.  I am glad that they passed it on to me.

Apparently “sorry” a very difficult, confused and confusing word.

It’s a word that covers the entire spectrum of apologies. From the trivial “sorry I left coffee cup marks on the newspaper” through notable “sorry I inflated my expenses” to serious “Sorry, I’ve had a string of affairs and wrecked our marriage”.  How can one word cover all of these? It doesn’t seem plausible that we haven’t evolved a variety of words to address the differing levels of apology but somehow we haven’t.    “Sorry” just doesn’t cover the big stuff. The Vatican saying sorry for years of clerical abuse can never have a ring of authenticity.  It couldn’t possibly express the level of regret and contrition needed to comfort victims of clerical abuse (not that I’m excusing the Vatican on grounds of technical linguistics, you understand).

In fact, apology for wrong-doing is only one meaning for the word “sorry”, and it’s not even a critical one.  The book quotes from an Esure 2007 survey where thousands of respondents were asked to define the word.  Here are the 5 most popular reasons for saying sorry:

  1. Not being able to help, or an expression of sympathy: “sorry, I don’t have time to go into this in detail”, or “sorry, can’t talk, in a rush” or “sorry your partner cheated on you”.
  2. Aologising on behalf of another: “sorry, the dog is usually so unfriendly”, or “sorry, junior is particularly cranky today”, “sorry, Mr Senior Mgr can’t see you now”.
  3. Not hearing what someone has said: “sorry, could you repeat that”.
  4. Asking someone to explain something: “Sorry, could you repeat that” or “I don’t understand, sorry”
  5. And, finally, down the list we reach the critical one, apologising for a wrong-doing: “sorry, I acted like a git”, “sorry, I shouldn’t have left that banana skin there”, “sorry I burned the dinner to a crisp and now there’s nothing to eat”.

The word is so over-used and used for such a variety of things, one wonders if it has any meaning at all. Quite often, it can be easier to just say sorry.  It stops a potential confrontation before it can build up steam. An example: “sorry for hogging the remote control, here you watch what you like”.  It almost has an air of chivalry – if the remote hogger really is feeling guilty.  A serious pet peeve of mine is the empty retailer apology. The “sorry we’re out of paper bags” or “sorry, we don’t have that in another colour” is usually so empty it makes me cringe.  The retailer (ok, typically their assistant) couldn’t care less that they can’t meet your needs. By using the “S” word, they just rob the word of its meaning and trivialise it.

On the other hand, there are cases where the “S” word should make a strong appearance but doesn’t.  Senior managers, politicians and corrupt bankers spring to mind.  It’s almost as if saying sorry is admitting guilt and they might be considered badly for it.  The reality is that a weak boss who won’t apologise for being spineless or not supportive of her staff is held in less esteem than one who at least attempts an apology.

The format of the apology is important.  If the apology is insincere, the apologiser can look very ropey indeed.  The big example here involves the word “May”.  Example: “I apologise for any upset that my words may have caused” is often code-speak for “oh, all right then, if you’re so thin-skinned as to be upset by my words then I’d better throw an apology your way”.  It leaves the recipient feeling more than somewhat indignant. Similarly, the apology followed by an excuse can be seen as a cop-out.  “Sorry my expense claims as so huge but ……”.  It doesn’t matter a jot what comes after the “but”.  Its very existence negates the apology and suggests the apologiser isn’t really all that sorry at all.   The apology has been diluted.

There are interesting linguistic differences in how other languages express the meaning behind their equivalent of Sorry.  The French have “je suis desole”/”I am desolate” which seems to carry more emotion than the English version.  Chinese go even further with “dui bu yi”/”I can’t raise my face to meet yours”.  On the other hand, Italian has “mi dispiace”/”it displeases me” which is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the word “sorry”.   None of these can hold a candle to the Latin “mea cupla”, a straight-forward up-front no-messing-about hands-up admission of guilt.

Unfortunately, much of our use of Sorry is far from straight-forward.  Sometimes, it’s clouded in ambiguity.  What exactly does the apologiser mean by their apology?  An example: “sorry I lied” often means “sorry I was found out for lying” or it could mean” sorry I lied”.  Another example is the “I owe you an apology”.  How many times is the statement uttered and the receiver is standing there wondering if that is the apology or if one is forthcoming.

That’s “Sorry” in a nutshell. As to the mysterious person who passed the book on to me, I can only say Sorry!  Sorry for both forgetting who you are and not showing enough appreciation for your book when you gave it to me.


A relaxing day

Today was far too nice (weather-wise) to spend it in-doors with head-in-the-books. Instead, I strolled around the campus and did some snapping.  Click on the Flickr link on the side bar to see the result.  Of course, the place looks much more fetching last week when the cherry trees were in full pink bloom.  My loss!

Just in case, I got book-withdrawal symptoms, I bought some new ones.  The only positive thing I can say for book readers is that they are space-saving. I have over-flowing shelves at the moment that require a clear out that’s not coming fast.  Yet, there is something reassuring and comfortable and real about a proper physical book.

Today’s paper-based purchases:

  • The Eye-Witness guide to Madrid – early summer holiday planning
  • The critics raved about My Lazy Eye but I’m not usually swayed by critics.  I am swayed by hardback at €4.99, reduced down from €16.00.
  • “The strange true life growing up adventures of Oran Canfield”. I’ve always been fascinated about the different courses peoples lives take. Some people just seem to have everything good fall into their laps, serendipity is on their side, they have an excess of talents and everyone loves them.  Other people have entirely the opposite. Psychologists constantly stress the role of childhood in determining the adult personality. How then does the son of two therapists (one of whom is Jack Canfield, author of the world famous “Chicken soup for the soul”) end up with such a broken life, freefalling into drug addiction?
  • A title such as “How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world” is eye-catching in its own right.  A flick through confirms the title. The author wonders how things that are implausible or just plain wrong are accepted as normal.  Homeopathy comes in for a bashing. Other aspects are more surprising e.g. a study of Wall Street stock brokers is quoted as claiming that 48% of brokers consult their horoscope before buying / selling. That claim alone explain a multitude!

What’s a good book?

There is a competition to find the best Irish book of the last decade.  It’s a nice idea. It gets people reading. It gets people talking about books. It’s publicity for the authors and publishers.

But the question is – what’s a good book?  What exactly is it that makes a book good?  Is it based on sales, on popularity, on critical (who are the critics?) acclaim, the best plotlines, characterisations, or fine writing, or a mysterious undefinable something?

I can’t claim to have all read the entire 50 titles on the short list. This means I couldn’t possibly be an objective judge. I wonder how many people have read all 50 in all their entirety?  There are titles in there that very likely would not be companions on a typical bookshelf.  I can’t imagine a Seamus Heaney fan having much in common with the Cathy Kelly club?  Maybe I’m being too presumptive.They are, after all, on the same list here.

A problem with these types of polls is the Recency-Effect. This competition has a ten-year span. People are more likely to remember those books published in the last 2 years than in the early part of the decade.  I myself am guilty of this.  2 books stand out for me on the list and both are relatively recent. The first is Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture – a book that had me falling our of the bottom of the bed, wrapped in the duvet.  It’s such a beautiful compelling read that you can’t put it down even at 4am when you know you should be sleeping.  The other is Let The Great World Spin by Colm McCann. This has its harrowing moments but is astounding inside the lifes and loves and adventures and entanglements of its characters.

Another example of the recency effect is the last-book-read situation.  I’ve just put down Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin. Let just say that I won’t be quite so dismissive of journals reporting from war-torn under-developed nations anymore. This is a book that made it to Booker longlist and won many plaudits. Yet it is not on this Book of the Decade list.

I know what I like in a good book. I know what I don’t like. I can’t see myself reading either of the sports books books on the list. Are they great books?  Am I depriving myself of greatness by not reading them. Should they be on the list?  I don’t know.