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Regretoric: the rise of the “nonapology” apology and the “apology tour”

OxfordDictionaries.com is adding the nouns apology tour and nonapology. These additions represent two related steps in the evolution of the noun apology, which first entered English in the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its earliest example is a book title: the 1533 Apologie of Syr Thomas More. That was More’s book defending the old Catholic order and his own actions and the word then referred to a verbal defense (as in Plato’s “The Apology of Socrates”).

By the early 1600s, the noun had yielded the verb apologize and over time, the meaning of apology and apologize shifted further to indicate a statement of regret rather than a defense of one’s actions.

An intermediate step along the way was the use of apology to mean an excuse, and that use lasted quite some time. President George Washington, for example, used apologize this way in a 1789 letter to the Sultan of Morocco. Referring to the lateness of his correspondence, Washington wrote, somewhat long-windedly, that

The time necessarily employed in the arduous task, and the disarrangements occasioned by so great though peaceable a revolution, will apologize, and account for your Majesty’s not having received those regularly advised marks of attention from the United States which the friendship and magnanimity of your conduct toward them afforded reason to expect.

Washington was making an excuse for not writing—he was busy with other things—but not offering an apology as we now think of it.

By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we find apology most often used in its modern sense of contrition. In 1842, for example, young Abe Lincoln had written some letters criticizing James Shields, the Illinois state auditor. Soon after, he received a letter from Shields stating that

I will take the liberty of requiring a full, positive and absolute retraction of all offensive allusions used by you in these communications, in relation to my private character and standing as a man, as an apology for the insults conveyed in them.

Shields wants an apology not an excuse. Lincoln resisted apologizing and Shields ended up challenging Lincoln to a duel (which was canceled at the very last minute).

Perhaps Lincoln was ahead of his time in resisting the call to apologize, because apologizing gradually become both a stigma and an expectation for those in public life. If an apology was made, it was a sign of weakness, exploited in politics by one’s adversaries. That was certainly the case for Woodrow Wilson, who was attacked by political enemies for considering a treaty that “expresse[d] sincere regret” about the worsening of relations with the nation of Colombia (over that Panama Canal thing).

The attitude of politicians today often seems to be informed by the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in which John Wayne’s military character has the catchphrase “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” In context, the phrase meant don’t make excuses, but it has drifted semantically to the point where apology is treated as political weakness rather than moral strength—as backing down rather than owning up.

So today, we have arrived at the commonly used pejorative expressions apology tour and non-apology. The former is “a series of speeches, interviews, or other public appearances by a politician or other well-known figure, characterized as an expedient opportunity to express regret for a mistake or wrongdoing.” The latter is “a statement that takes the form of an apology but does not constitute an acknowledgement of responsibility or regret for what has caused offense or upset.” Today the terms position apologies as unnecessary on the one hand and insincere on the other.

Nonapology examples

Given this simultaneous politicization and devaluing of apologies, it is little wonder that public figures apologize so reluctantly and so poorly, with vague conditional regrets, wordy passive language, and out-and-out excuses. Here are a few of my favorite fauxpologies:

“Clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.” (Mitt Romney in 2012, offering an excuse)

“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions.” (Hillary Clinton in 2015, saying she’s sorry people are confused)

“I also need to apologize to them for my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did.” (Chris Christie in 2015, being sorry he was uninformed)

“It’s unfortunate that we’re living in a time where just about every joke can be misconstrued to cause offense to someone. To the good people of Nigeria—a beautiful nation where my wife lived briefly as the child of missionaries—no offense was intended.” (Ted Cruz in 2013, saying he didn’t mean anything by it)

Why is it so hard for public figures to apologize well? Some may feel that they are victims of a game of gotcha, in which every casual comment or verbal misstep is amplified and misinterpreted. Others may feel that they have to take responsibility for situations not in their control or entirely of their making. And some have simply said or done things that they do not want to own up to.

Like it or not, we are in a culture of non-apology tours.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Apology” by Marina Caprara. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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