Stiff upper lip

A person who is said to have a stiff upper lip displays fortitude and stoicism in the face of adversity, or exercises great self-restraint in the expression of emotion.[1][2] The phrase is most commonly heard as part of the idiom "keep a stiff upper lip", and has traditionally been used to describe an attribute of British people in remaining resolute and unemotional when faced with adversity.[1] A sign of weakness is trembling of the upper lip, hence the saying keep a stiff upper lip. When a person's upper lip begins to tremble, it is one of the first signs that the person is scared or shaken by experiencing deep emotion.[3]


Notable examples in British history include Captain Lawrence Oates's understated act of Antarctic sacrifice: aware that his own ill health was compromising his three companions' chances of survival, he calmly left the tent and chose certain death; Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before embarking on the defeat of the Spanish Armada; Captain Edward Smith as he directed the evacuation of the RMS Titanic and stoically remained with the ship as it sank; and The Earl of Uxbridge's calm assessment of his injuries (he had lost his leg) to the Duke of Wellington when hit by a cannonball during the Battle of Waterloo in the Napoleonic Wars.[4]


The ideal of the stiff upper lip is traced back to Ancient Greece – to the Spartans, whose cult of discipline and self-sacrifice was a source of inspiration to the English public school system; and to the Stoics. Stoic ideas were adopted by the Romans, particularly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, "If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now."[5] The concept reached England in the 1590s, and featured in the plays of William Shakespeare; his tragic hero Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so".[1] Poems that feature a memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism and a stiff upper lip include Rudyard Kipling's "If—" and W. E. Henley's "Invictus".[5] The phrase became symbolic of the British people, and particularly of those who were students of the English public school system during the Victorian era. Such schools were heavily influenced by stoicism, and aimed to instill a code of discipline and devotion to duty in their pupils through 'character-building' competitive sports (as immortalised in the poem 'Vitai Lampada'), corporal punishments and cold showers.[5]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Keep a stiff upper lip Retrieved 20 February 2011
  2. ^ "The myth of the stiff upper lip", BBC
  3. ^ "Stiff upper lip". World Wide Words. 19 August 2006. Retrieved 4 February 2013.
  4. ^ "Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip". Metro. 2 October 2016.
  5. ^ a b c "Spartans and Stoics – Stiff Upper Lip – Icons of England" Archived 12 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 20 February 2011

Further readingEdit

  • Thomas Dixon (2015). Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199676057.

External linksEdit