Q: Why do the British use the expression “stiff upper lip” in reference to their fortitude? And when did they begin using it?
A: Although the expression is now a cliché for British determination in the face of adversity, it actually originated in the United States in the early 1800s.
Why “keep a stiff upper lip”? Well, the lips may respond to fear and other strong emotions by contracting, turning pale, trembling, and so on.
But we haven’t seen any research in physiology indicating that the upper lip is more responsive to emotion than the lower. Nor have we seen a convincing etymological explanation for why the expression refers to the upper lip in particular.
There’s no clue in the earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from the June 14, 1815, issue of the Massachusetts Spy, a weekly newspaper: “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.”
The next example in the OED is from the writings of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a politician and author in what was then the British colony of Nova Scotia.
The 1836 citation is from Haliburton’s humorous series of sketches, originally published in a Halifax newspaper, about Sam Slick the Clockmaker, an opinionated Connecticut Yankee traveling in Nova Scotia:
“Its a proper pity sich a clever woman should carry such a stiff upper lip.” (The words are Sam Slick’s, suggesting that Haliburton may have considered “stiff upper lip” a Yankeeism.)
The next Oxford example is from the American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “ ‘Well, good-by, Uncle Tom; keep a stiff upper lip,’ said George.”
And here’s one (not in the OED) from another American novel, Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward (1890), by Horatio Alger: “ ‘Keep a stiff upper lip,’ said Dick.”
The earliest Oxford citation for the expression used in the British Isles is from the Sept. 17, 1887, issue of the Spectator: “The Financial Secretary, who, it is supposed, will have a stiff upper lip and tightly buttoned pockets.”
And this battle-hardened example is from Gallipoli Diary, a 1920 memoir by Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the British and allied forces against the Ottoman Empire at the start of the Battle of Gallipoli:
“I spoke to as many of them as I could, and although some were terribly mutilated and disfigured, and although a few others were clearly dying, one and all kept a stiff upper lip—one and all were, or managed to appear—more than content—happy!”
By the mid-20th century, the expression was often used to poke fun at British stoicism. This example is from a late novel of P. G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963):
“It’s pretty generally recognized at the Drones Club and elsewhere that Bertram Wooster is a man who knows how to keep the chin up and the upper lip stiff, no matter how rough the going may be.”