Is “Sorry” the most difficult word?

Adrian Arnold
4 min readJan 29, 2021


Photo by Shahan Khan on Unsplash

In 1976 Elton John sang “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” while long before , and ever since, people have been reiterating that sentiment. In fact it is one of the most used expressions in the English language. We say “Sorry!” when we accidentally bump shoulders on a street, inadvertently join a waiting queue in the wrong place or respond to a friend’s comment that her mother died 20 years ago at the age of 72. “Sorry I’m late,” you say when actually you are five minutes early but everyone else is there. ‘Sorry’ when you catch someone out at cricket when they are one run short of a century.

Apparently the Canadians are the world champions of sorry. Emily Keeler on CBC gave a perfect example of the Canadian “Sorry”.

“My favourite example of a Canadian apology is when you’re out for brunch, or at a restaurant, and you really need some ketchup.
So you say to the waiter — whose job it is to help you get the things you need to enjoy your meal — “Oh, sorry! Um, sorry, hi! Is it okay if … could I have some ketchup, please? Oh, thanks so much, sorry!” “

Someone once said that regarding “Sorry”, the Americans don’t say it, the British never mean it and the Canadians overdo it. As the late wordsmith and feminist advocate, Lois Wyse, said: “Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.”

“Sorry” is one of the easiest words to say but it is one of the most difficult to mean. There are many other ways of expressing the casual intention of the word by giving it some meaning. For example, by saying “Thank you for your patience” instead of “Sorry to have kept you waiting” you convert an apology into appreciation and the recipient feels better about themselves. If you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” too often try adding a few qualifying words to the phrase such as “I’m sorry you had to make this call today. How can I help?” If you are a serial apologist take a long hard look at yourself and simply stop saying “sorry” when someone runs their car wheel over your foot! Simply say nothing.

Despite this casual use the word does have its value.

“The British sorry is a prophylactic word. It protects the user and the recipient from the potentially explosive consequences of the truth.” — AA Gill in The Angry Island: Hunting the English.

There are times when some form of acknowledgement is called for but when a casual sorry is inadequate. “I apologise”, “Pardon me” or “Forgive me” all carry a simple meaningful response so long as the words carry no suggestion of sarcasm. This would only escalate a trivial incident into full-blown aggression.

Someone once said that regarding “Sorry”, the Americans don’t say it, the British never mean it and the Canadians overdo it.

This obsession with apology has developed to the point where Google has developed a Gmail Chrome plugin — Just NOT Sorry — which warns you when you appear to be apologising too frequently. Not that I know what the word “woke” means but I assume that this would appeal to the woke generation. It was developed by a labor economist and the authors of Playing Big; Practical Advice for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. (I do not apologise for omitting the names of these authors who are obviously leading the charge of the woke generation. I prefer to think for myself — respecting both men and women as equals with different skills.)

Getting back to the subject of this article, how can one apologise — and show that you mean it? That is the hard bit. Acknowledging fault is a good start but the words must not be qualified by giving reasons for one’s actions or words however valid they may be. You were wrong. There may have been a hundred different reasons for being wrong but they do not add to the contrition — they usually compound the problem.

Simply leaving a small plant pot on their front doorstep with a short, handwritten note often works wonders.

Any meaningful apology must be personal. I am sorry but emails or WhatsApp messages don’t hack it. Going round to the offended person’s home to apologise in person takes courage which you may find difficult to summon up. When was the last time you wrote a letter on headed notepaper with a fountain pen? Try it and then slip it into their letter box — you may even find that you actually create a deeper friendship by apologising in a personal way.

Gifting an apology is another means of conveying your feelings. Simply leaving a small plant pot on their front doorstep with a short, handwritten note often works wonders. Please don’t use filling station forecourt flowers or a tired box of chocolates, they simply diminish the intention. What about a cardboard box of home-baked chocolate chip cookies?

Finally, if you happen to find a typo in this article, all I can say is “Sorry about that!”



Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.