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On Point: Stiff Upper Lip

Category: Vocabulary | 2017-02-15

A Look At The Phrase “Stiff Upper Lip”

Greetings and welcome again to On Point. Today, we start with the first in our series on the origin of English phrases. As a fan of the rock band, AC/DC, the phrase “Stiff Upper Lip” is one that has been known to me since well before my time as an English teacher. This has always been a cool album for me because of its link to Canada and one of our own rockers, Bryan Adams. The album was recorded in his studio in Vancouver late in 1999. A truly great blues rock album if you like that sort of thing, which I do!

Meaning Of “Stiff Upper Lip”

The phrase “stiff upper lip”, or “keeping a stiff upper lip” means to remain resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity, or even tragedy. A measure of stoicism, if you will. It has become quite common in the English langauge and it fits its meaning rather well. If you imagine holding your upper lip stiff, your expression will certainly appear aloof and unfriendly, betraying little to no feeling whatsoever. In this facial expression lies the root of the phrase. When the upper lip begins to tremble, it is one of the first signs that the person is nervous or scared. Hence the saying, keep a stiff upper lip.

As such, the idiom bears a similar meaning to “bite the bullet” or “keep your chin up”. For most of us, we naturally tie this sentiment to the British. This is for good reason, as the English public school system from the Victorian era took a great deal of influence from the Stoics. They, for their part, left their mark on the Romans as well. In particular, Marcus Aurelius, who said:

“If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now”.

Stiff Upper Lip


In the past few decades, however, the stiff upper lip has lost its popularity in the masses. More and more, we are trading in our strong silent heroes for those who are able to express their emotions. It is not uncommon to now see our male athletes in tears after an emotional win. With the feminist movement finally beginning to take hold, we see politicians an celebrities urging the formerly stoic men of society to get in touch with their feminine sides. Try to imagine either of these cases in the first half of the 20th century. I can’t imagine seeing John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart blubbering away because of a fallen brother in arms.

Origin Of “Stiff Upper Lip”

So, where did this phrase come from? You might think that because of its association with the British, that we would find its origins there. However, strangely enough, the first printed reference to the phrase is from the Massachusetts Spy from June of 1815:

“I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.”

Now, this quote does not come right out and give a clear link to the idea of remaining resolute through adversity. But, it is accepted as being the earliest recorded use of the phrase. Throughout 19th century American works we see the phrase pop up more commonly, and the earliest use in British writing dates back to 1844.

Let’s Hear From You

Where did you first hear “stiff upper lip”? Was it also AC/DC that introduced you to this idiom? What other idioms would you like to know about? Let us know in the comments section below and we will add them to the list.

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