Sorry originally meant full of sorrow. There was no presumption of guilt as in the modern interpretation – that requires context to determine. Consider the following two sentences.

“I am sorry [that I stole your bike].”
“I am sorry [that your bike got stolen].”

There’s no way to tell the difference from the stated words. It’s a simple demonstration of how worthless “Sorry” can be as a standalone phrase. Fault ought to be an important component. There’s this persistent legend of various languages with no word for sorrow-with-fault, one must perform an act of repentance in order to apologize. While I’m more than happy to consider such claims apocryphal until proven otherwise, there’s something to it. Consider the Catholic requirements for absolution: genuine regret, a firm desire to avoid repeating the crime, and an act of sacrifice to demonstrate your commitment. There is no room for empty or insincere apologies. Though if you need an insincere way to apologize without admitting fault, stack exchange has your back.

For that other meaning of sorry, sorrow-without-fault, I rather prefer the Spanish. Lo siento, “I feel it”. Rather cuts to the heart of it. From the comment thread of another post comes a beautiful expression of some of the range for the term that I wish the English possessed.

“I always found the English word ‘sorry’ very limiting. To put things into context, in Amharic we literally have different words to convey the different sentiments that morph into the single word ‘sorry’ in translation. ‘Ayzon (feminine ‘sh’)’ translates to sorry for your sorrow, it is said to indicate solidarity and in its extreme sense to convey hope. For instance, if someone stumbles in front of you- it is common to instantly say ‘ayzon!’ With my English speaking friends, literal translation of this gets me incredulous look and the inevitable statement ‘but it is not your fault’. The second word ‘Eikerta’ literally translates to ‘let bygones’ with the ‘ta’ inflexion. This is the word you would use to say I am sorry for wrong doing. Third word ‘aznalehugn’ translates to I am full of sorrow. Interestingly, this embodiment of sorry has a popular usage in heated conversation, the English equivalent to ‘Sorry to say this but…’”

-Mezida Saeed

If the nuance of language is not fascinating enough to you in it’s own right, at least consider that the wording of apologies has consequences.


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