October 31, 2019 | Narrative
a brief history of sorry
adj. (and int.)
I do not recall the first time I was scolded, nor do I remember the first time I was Sorry for it. I don’t know when I first used Sorry to qualify my shortcomings, to ask for something, to excuse myself; I’m not sure when I adopted it as a space-filler, a shadow over the rest of my words, making myself smaller. And I can’t remember the number of times I had already used it the day my professor leveled his eyes at me and said, “You know, Anneliese, you don’t have to apologize for everything.”
I hadn’t even realized that I’d apologized for sharing my thoughts on Euripides’s Hippolytos. And in response to my professor’s scorn?
“Oh…Sorry about that.”
After the crimson shame began to drain from my cheeks, I wondered when and how I’d fallen into such stagnant repetition—how I’d etched Sorry into my every conversation while hardly ever meaning the same thing by it, if anything at all.
My mind fails to construct a cohesive timeline of my apologetic behavior. But I doubt this is a matter of memory alone. Sorry must have formed elsewhere, whether in text or in conscience; it must have started somewhere for me to find myself here.
I trace Sorry’s origins through several catalog searches at the Rock library, to a section shelving titles about politics, apologies, and public life, where I find a novel on the bottom left shelf of aisle eight whose name has long faded. Frayed binding has rubbed uneven holes through the spine; shadowed edges merge into a cream-colored center, each page a magnified coffee stain. The text reads to me like an old man’s voice, booming and polite: “We reveal our secrets, we teach, we make love, we flatter, we scold, we tell lies, with our manners.”
I picture this novel when it breathed as a tree, imagine it feeding the pair of lungs that chopped it down to create a now century-old guide to manners. I brush the corners that countless fingers have swept before mine, all intent on grasping the secrets of this “Fine Art.” Every page-turn swells into a small wave of dust, a greeting from the past, phrases punctuated by a sharp sneeze. I trace its winding chapters, following an elaborate construction of foundations and absolutes: setting the table, dinner party etiquette, looking nice for your Husband when he comes home. Establishing behavioral cornerstones: technique, intent—all that is Correct.
I close the binding in a frustrated clap, only half-afraid I broke the thing. The text has evaded, carefully and unintentionally, a word that the Oxford English Dictionary describes with eighteen different definitions—paving the way for several histories of Sorry. The word’s collective history is breathed to life when a child is first scorned, exhaled when we repeat ourselves into the blurred edges of Sorry’s confines: a frame, an all-encompassing air. It’s a history recycled in becoming, temporarily, this amorphous noun.
To balance whatever gesture or mistake I think I’ve made, I subordinate myself to Sorry: I describe my own being only in defining an enclosure. When I declare that I am Sorry, I modify myself; I place myself in a shallow space to be received by a nod, an acceptance of stability or its attempt. I become legible in the code of Manner.
I won’t find this code—at least not here, in aisle eight of the Rock—in any written form. I can only hear it enacted, just about anywhere, from my voice or others’. Most frequently from those of other women. In several occurrences, Sorry operates as something other than an acknowledgment of wrongdoing: It acts as an afterthought or forethought to comments made in class, softens any recognition of physical existence, noting fault for non-harmful accidental contact, peacefully introducing the right to a study room booked in advance. I think at some point we intertwine politeness and maturity; we mistake Sorry for a bridge, an olive branch. The acceptance of this artificial stability paves way for repetition; expectations of appropriate behavior are set loosely and nonuniformly; for some, Sorry begins to drive the breath, and the word gathers itself endlessly into the white noise of our world.
I’d been trying to build a foundation upon Sorry, setting a cornerstone for my public persona in adherence to social norms. But the texture of Sorry is viscous—it seeps through the body like glue. It is this quiet fluidity that allows the word to envelop whole parts of us. The very entity that tries to restore balance actually clouds the truth; it begins to undercut the threads that hold one’s identity together. In growing into the shell of my “adult” or mature self, I had begun to confine myself to the edges of existence: I was constantly losing track of myself, often becoming Sorry instead.
Sorry can become dangerous when it acts as an apology for existence. In repetition, some of us are bound by the air we learn to breathe; some become Sorry for taking up any space at all. What is this becoming? This word with almost infinite intention, endless use—what is it collecting? A history: spoken and written, sticky and shrunken, told and untelling—one that is seemingly too diverse and too volatile to be contained.
My search to define and trace histories of Sorry feels like turning on high beams in the fog: Trying to shine a light only leaves the surrounding shadows thicker, richer, and my own understanding all the more opaque. In mapping out the blueprints of Sorry, I reside in familiar unnamed spaces, and here, hovering, suspended, I drift in its currents like seaweed.