Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Boris Johnson, who refused to apologise for blaming care homes for Covid-19 outbreaks and instead denied he’d said any such thing, which of course he had. But why does “sorry” itself appear to have such magical power?
It is cognate with “sore” and with “sorrow”, and so to be sorry has, from middle English, been to experience the pain of remorse. (As Thomas Dekker wrote in 1606, when the soul sees Death approaching, “she begins to be sorrie for her ante-acted evils”.) Strictly speaking, an “apology”, by contrast – originally a “defence”, from the Greek – is an expression of regret for unintended harm to another.
Of course “sorry” is not limited to personal remorse, for a situation can also be a sorry state of affairs, and a government might be a sorry bunch of inept obfuscators. Maybe there are even some who are now sorry they voted for them. There is even such a thing as a “sorry-go-round”, which the OED defines as “a repetitive cycle of depressing events”, which presumably can be the case even if no one is apologising for their hand in creating them.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.