Q From Isabel Hefner: I couldn’t find the origin of the phrase stiff upper lip. Any suggestions?
A To keep a stiff upper lip is to display courage and resolution in the face of adversity, to maintain a stoic appearance and so avoid showing weakness or emotion. The idea behind it is that when fear or other deep emotion threaten to overcome a person, one of the first signs is the upper lip beginning to tremble. In Britain, it has long since become a cliché linked to the once much-admired products of the public schools, who were sent into the Empire to battle adversity while keeping their emotions bottled up and their countenances cheerful, because it was the thing to do.
George Orwell semi-satirised it in his essay Inside The Whale of 1940: “With Maugham it is a kind of stoical resignation, the stiff upper lip of the pukka sahib somewhere east of Suez, carrying on with his job without believing in it, like an Antonine Emperor.” P C Wren used it in all seriousness in Beau Geste in 1924: “Anyhow, I conquered the yearning to go back to her, and when the local train loafed in I got into it, with a stiff upper lip and a bleeding heart, and set out on as eventful and strange a journey as ever a man took.”
It’s so characteristically English (P G Wodehouse wrote a novel with the title Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves) that I was amazed to find it’s American. The earliest known example is in a publication called the Massachusetts Spy for 14 June 1815; “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.” It’s well recorded throughout the nineteenth century in works like Thomas Haliburton’s The Clockmaker of 1837, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 1852, and in works by Horatio Alger, Petroleum V Nasby, Mark Twain, and others. It was only near the end of the century that it started to appear in British publications.