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Linguistics

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What Does "Stiff Upper Lip" Mean?

By Jacob Queen
Updated: May 23, 2024
References

The phrase "stiff upper lip" is an idiom describing restraint in regards to overt displays of emotion. It is especially used in regards to emotions that could potentially be interpreted as a demonstration of weakness, including fear and grief. The actual context for the use of the idiom is usually as a piece of advice, urging people to keep a stiff upper lip when faced with difficulty, and the term is also used descriptively. This idiom is primarily associated with the British, and is in reference to a particular stoic attitude that was culturally cultivated during the times of the British Empire.

In Western culture, demonstrations of emotion are often seen as a sign of weakness, and this is particularly true of any emotion that hints at an underlying vulnerability. In the United Kingdom during the times of the British Empire, people were often expected to maintain a steady disposition, showing very little or no emotion when bad things happened to them. The fortitude associated with this kind of disposition was considered praiseworthy, and the term "stiff upper lip" was often used to reference a strong stoic personality. Generally, the idea of keeping a stiff upper lip still has some cultural significance in the United Kingdom, and the philosophy that cultivated this idea still has some degree of influence, although perhaps not as much as it once did.

The stiff upper lip idiom can apply in many situations. Sometimes it is used to reference the outward display of emotion, and it might be used to describe an attempt to suppress emotions internally as well. For example, if someone is heading into battle, the urging to keep a stiff upper lip is often meant not only to suggest that the soldier keep a brave outward disposition, but also that he should suppress any internal feeling of fear as well.

Sometimes the term "stiff upper lip" is primarily used in the context of advice, such as the soldier example above, but it can also be used descriptively, usually demonstrating admiration for a person’s stoicism. For example, in a conversation about a tough older lady, a man might say, "She had a hard life, but she always kept a stiff upper lip no matter what happened." When used as advice, it is pretty similar to the idiom "keep your chin up" in the way that it’s used, and when used descriptively, it is more similar to the term "hard as nails."

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Discussion Comments
By anon966804 — On Aug 22, 2014

To StreamLouise and others on this site,

I've experienced advice like, 'don't cry as it's weak', 'keep your chin up', 'pull yourself together', 'get a grip', 'snap out of it' or 'don't dwell on it' when I think of something which has upset me, caused me grief or something I'm worried about and it has showed on my face (for example when I've cried).

After hearing this advice, I began to hate the stiff upper lip (after being criticized for not conforming to it). When my mother died, I became more conscious of some people's stiff upper lip attitudes to my grief and began to hate stiff upper lip even more.

I'm not naturally stiff upper lip but I'm a very human and quite an emotional British woman so I am very much like you StreamLouis. After being criticized for not being stoic and after finding it hard to conform to the stiff upper lip thing I now think, "The stiff upper lip is a silly philosophy which really isn't for me.

My advice to you, StreamLouis, and others is this: "It is okay with me for anyone to be expressive and have emotions. Don't try to be the stoic person you aren't. I can be strong in a human way but I am not a natural stoic so I don't even try to be stoical."

By donasmrs — On Sep 27, 2013

@turkay1-- I think soldiers of all nationalities have a stiff upper lip when they are doing their duty. Of course they are not like that in their personal life.

By the way, "stiff upper lip" is associated with the British, but it actually has an American origin.

The idiom is believed to have been printed for the first time in an American newspaper in the 1800s. It might haven been in use among the British before this, but Americans were the first to use it in literary print.

It is true that the phrase became much more popular in the UK however.

By candyquilt — On Sep 26, 2013

Despite being a British phrase, I don't think it's very applicable anymore. I have a few friends in the British army and I don't think they have a stiff upper lip at all.

By SteamLouis — On Sep 26, 2013

I wish I could keep a stiff upper lip, literally. I have a very expressive face and anyone can easily read my emotions from my facial appearance. Whether I'm upset, happy or worried, I show it right away.

I don't like this about myself because I want to keep a distance between myself and people. I don't want everyone to know how I'm feeling at that moment. When someone looks at me and says "What happened? You look so sad!" I feel bad about myself. I wish I could maintain a stiff upper lip no matter how I feel. I think it would boost my self-confidence.

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