Friday, March 5, 2010

"Sorry" Just Doesn't Cut It

I love the English language for many reasons--it's versatile, with between 600,000 to 1 million words to choose from; it's literarily rich, the first language of many a great writer; it's global, the lingua franca of the modern era; and it's familiar, my first and primary language. But, despite its charms, English and I don't always get along, especially when it comes to the phrase "I'm sorry."

Don't get me wrong; I'm not unapologetic. But English's limitations are to blame for a lot of confusion in my life, because it simply fails me when I want to say "I'm sorry." The word itself can mean so many different things: regret, empathy, apology, compunction, even surprise. How can my addressee know which of these eclectic meanings I wish to express?

I think Portuguese does a much better job. There is no direct equivalent to the English phrase "I'm sorry" in Brazil. One must pick between three phrases: com licença, sinto muito, and desculpe. Each has its place and, if used appropriately, delineates exactly what the speaker means to say.

When you're on the metro escalator and someone is standing on the left side, instead of the right, you might say com licen
ça to let them know you're there trying to pass. If you know you must brush up against someone to get by them in a jammed place, there's another place to use it. Com licença literally means "with license," a polite way of asking permission to slightly inconvenience. A polite Brazilian might say sim, i.e. yes, I give you permission.

Sinto muito is one of my favorites, and literally means, "I feel much." Its role is to express empathy and does so in a way that I cannot adequately replicate in English. Americans tend to compensate by saying "I'm so sorry" instead of simply "I'm sorry," but that just doesn't seem to be enough. I had a friend in college who was in a tremendous amount of pain after back surgery. She was sitting on a sofa in the study hall visibly crying because her meds were not giving her much, if any, relief. We were all concerned and each said "I'm sorry," to which she repeatedly responded, "It's not your fault." That exchange stands out to me now as the must wretched failure of the English phrase "I'm sorry." We knew it wasn't our fault, but lacked the words to really express how much we felt for her.

Finally, desculpe is for when you've hurt or offended someone and seek to make amends. Fights with family members, repentance, betrayed confidences, or wounded feelings all might warrant a heartfelt desculpe. The word literally means "un-guilt." If that is not enough, the words me perdoa, "pardon (or absolve) me" really express deep contrition, penance, repentance, and hope for a restoration of trust and good-feeling. It just seems to mean so much more than the lame, unspecific "I'm sorry."

So, com licen
ça, I may start using these Portuguese terms around you instead, especially if I know you read my blog. Believe me, life will make a whole lot more sense once you learn them.


  1. I think that English fails in describing the colorful winged insects. I have started calling them by thier proper and very descriptive name "flutterby".

  2. I agree with you on they way we use "sorry." I wish that I could understand the Portuguese words (by understand I mean say and use correctly). For now I am going to try to use other words to help individuals understand what I am trying to say or express. Thanks for sharing! :)