an American phrase for a British trait: ‘a stiff upper lip’

first-edition cover of 'Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves' (1963), by P. G. Wodehouse

first-edition cover of Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963), by the English author Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975)—image: Goldsboro Books




a stiff upper lip: a quality of uncomplaining stoicism




The word lip occurs in phrases referring to certain actions regarded as indicative of particular states of feeling; for example:
– to bite one’s lip, meaning to show vexation or to repress emotion;
– to lick one’s lips, meaning to look forward to something with relish;
– to curl one’s lip, meaning to raise a corner of one’s upper lip, as an expression of contempt or scorn.

The obsolete phrase to fall a lip of contempt meant to express contempt by the movement of the lip, and to hang the lip was used to mean to look vexed.

The phrase to keep a stiff upper lip is now understood as referring to what is believed to be a quintessentially British trait, the repression of emotion, but in fact it originated in North America; one of its early users was the American frontiersman, soldier and politician Davy Crockett (1786-1836) in his autobiography published in 1834, and John Russell Bartlett included it in Dictionary of Americanisms. A glossary of words and phrases, usually regarded as peculiar to the United States (New York, 1848):

To keep a stiff upper lip, is to continue firm, unmoved.

The earliest instance that I have found is from Relfs Philadelphia Gazette, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 9th November 1811; its correspondent in Washington saw the U.S. preparations for war against the United Kingdom as illusory measures intended only to intimidate the British:

There will be much talk and little business this session—War is out of the question, but it was resolved in caucus last Sunday evening to look big and keep a stiff upper lip.

In The Southern Literary Journal, and Monthly Magazine (Charleston, South Carolina) of January 1837, the reviewer of an edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, by the English writer John Bunyan (1628-88), associated the stiff upper lip with the British; after quoting the biography of the author, which says that Bunyan was “wearing his hair on his upper lip, after the old British fashion”, the reviewer wrote:

Those fashionable gentlemen who “wear hair upon the upper lip,” at the present day, may not be aware that it is an “old British fashion,” and that it stands upon no higher authority than the practice of the “tinker of Elstow [= Bunyan].” When they are persuaded that it savours strongly of Toryism and Non-conformity, they will doubtless abandon it for that more republican mode of dressing the beard, which makes all its longitudinal excrescences equal. The stiff upper lip, whether rendered stiff by pride or bristles, should be reserved only for monarchies.

One of the means by which the phrase became known in the United Kingdom was the diffusion of American books, which were reviewed in British newspapers; for example, The Literary Gazette; and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. (London) of Saturday 21st June 1834 quoted it in its review of the autobiography A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee; and, in 1838, The Athenæum: Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts (London) of Saturday 7th July and The Torch (London) of Saturday 14th July mentioned it in their reviews of The Clockmaker; or, the Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick, of Slickville, by the Nova-Scotian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865).

Another means was religion; The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (Liverpool and London) of Tuesday 22nd September 1874 published Keep a stiff upper Lip, by the American poet Phœbe Cary (1824-71).

American phrenology might also have played its part; the American phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler (1809-87) wrote the following in Fowler’s Practical Phrenology (New York, 1849):

The poles of Self-Esteem are between the mouth and nose, about an inch and a quarter apart, and about an inch below the outer portion of the nose. Hence its action produces that curl of the upper lip which expresses scorn, contempt, pride, and self-sufficiency.
The poles of Firmness are about half an inch apart, near the edge of the upper lip, and in the hollow between the nose and mouth. Hence, its action produces that compression of the upper lip which is said to indicate decision of character; and hence, encouraging another to be firm, is expressed by the saying, “Now keep a stiff upper lip.” The expression, “That man carries a stiff upper lip,” is also in harmony with this supposed discovery.

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