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Stiff upper lips

This afternoon David found himself at Waterloo Station with not one train listed on the board. Apparently high winds, to which he had been oblivious while strolling though a London art museum, had downed more than thirty trees on the lines. His brief message suggested that all his fellow travellers were completely calm, and “stiff upper lip” might be the theme of this post.

As it happens, I had just been reading John Derbyshire, an Englishman who lives in America, writes about mathematics, and contributes to NRO’s Corner.

A reader had enquired,

“Derb – What, in your opinion, constitute permanent values?”

Derbyshire replied, “Well, first and foremost, there is the value of keeping a stiff upper lip in all circumstances. The rest are pretty secondary.”

It’s doubtful that “stiff upper lip” would leap to most people’s lips if asked the same question. But they would probably agree that responding calmly to a crisis is useful, and sometimes essential.

According to the OED the phrase became current in the Victorian Age. However, stiff upper lips can be found in the Spartan stand at Thermopylae and many classical stories. If the phrase means clear-headed courage and fortitude, it has been found among Brits for two thousand years. (See the Liberty Timeline .) Churchill’s History of the Second World War provides a number of examples, especially during the London Blitz.

Despite 99 mph winds, which have killed at least 12 Britons, and severe transportation disruptions and slowdowns, Brits have carried on. David made it to Basingstoke, and caught a lift to Winchester. Did I mention that people with stiff upper lips enjoy a bit of excitement?