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Keep calm and carry on; it’s the British way Posted On 30 March 2020

Keeping a stiff upper lip. It’s something for which the British are renowned: stoically battling on in the face of adversity, jaws clenched, teeth gritted, a resolute expression, a statement of intent

For example, think of that symbol of defiance, Sir Francis Drake continuing his game of bowls as the might of the Spanish Armada massed off our shores; the Earl of Uxbridge relaying a description of his injuries to the Duke of Wellington at The Battle of Waterloo (‘My lord, I seem to have lost my leg’); or the ultimate sacrifice from Capt Lawrence Oates who, crippled by frostbite and gangrene, stepped out of a freezing tent into a howling Antarctic blizzard to seal his doom because he thought he was slowing down Capt Robert Scott’s ill-fated march for survival.

Or the modern-day equivalent of trying to work from home during the Coronavirus lockdown while the internet buffers because EVERYONE is using it and the bored teenager next door kicks a football against a wall with metronomic repetition, sparking his pet dog to bark himself hoarse thinking it’s a game.

But what does it mean? And how did we coin the expression?

Obviously, the opposite of a ‘stiff upper lip’ is a trembling one, typically seen as a sign of weakness from someone who is suffering an episode of deep emotion.

As for the origins, many believe they can be traced to the Ancient Greeks and the Spartans, whose cult of discipline and self-sacrifice first influenced the Romans, with Emperor Marcus Aurelius musing: “If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this which disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”

However, the concept really took root in Victorian society, notably through the English public-school system and is best crystallised by Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If…’ and W E Henley’s ‘Invictus’.

During those brutally strict times, terrifying schoolmasters set out to instil a code of discipline and devotion into their charges with a series of character-building exercises, corporal punishment and freezing cold showers.

Already rife throughout the ruling classes, it naturally spread through the armed forces where courage in the face of death became a daily necessity.

And so it became seen as perhaps the ultimate sign of Britishness. Whatever the odds, we won’t let it stop us.

In short, keep calm and carry on. Stay home. Save Lives. It’s the only way…

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