Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Stiff Upper Lip

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 5, 2010

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…

Eric Idle’s song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is often seen as a humorous celebration of the stereotypical stiff upper lip. Oddly enough, though, this expression didn’t originate with the British even though it’s oftentimes used to describe the British.

The phrase “stiff upper lip” is recorded across the nineteenth century in works by such authors as Thomas Haliburton in his book, The Clockmaker published in 1837, Harriet Beecher Stowe in his book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in 1852, in Mark Twain’s letters to his childhood friend, Will Bowen in 1866 (later published in 1899 as Mark Twain’s Letters to Will Bowen) and in works by Horatio Alger and other great writers.

Richard Hopwood Thornton, the founding dean of the University of Oregon School of Law and an Episcopal clergyman wrote a book entitled, An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms Upon Historical Principles which was published in 1912.   He was able to trace the origin of the phrase “stiff upper lip” to an American newspaper, the”Massachusetts Spy” where it was reported on June 14, 1815:

I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought license to sell my goods.

And so ends another idiom mystery until tomorrow.

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