How do you say sorry?

A friend is mourning the loss of a loved one. We say we're sorry. Your absent minded offspring misplaced their homework. We say we're sorry. A neighbor banged their shin on a park bench. We say we're sorry. A colleague's kid just lost the little league championship game. We say we're sorry. Someone is offended by something we said. We say we're sorry. We bump into a stranger at the grocery store. We say we're sorry. We are an apologetic society. We will even say we're sorry for saying sorry too much. But what does it mean? How many times have you said you were sorry and someone replied that it was unnecessary to apologize because you didn't do anything wrong?

Let's be clear, despite the vast number of synonyms in the English language - a multitude of different words with similar definitions, our American vocabulary is often woefully lacking. Scholars at Oxford maintain a linguistic database of every English word used in books, magazines, and other publications. Their database is estimated to contain over two million unique words. We possess such a prodigious lexicon, yet we so often struggle to communicate our basic desires and emotions. We speak from the diversity of a language that is frequently inadequate.

There is an abundance of fun foreign words with no direct English translation. For example, the Czech word "vybafnout" describes the act of younger siblings annoying an older brother - not an older sister, this term is specific to older brothers. Or the Swedish word "lagom," which literally means moderate, but the Swedes use it to describe a perfect quantity that isn't too much or too little. In Japan, there is a word 恋の予感 (pronounced koi-no-yokan) which describes a feeling more intense than infatuation, an inescapable sense that you are going to fall in love with a person you just met. In Spanish, pena ajena is what you would feel if you are embarrassed on behalf of someone else.

Then there is one of my favorite pastimes: shadenfreude. It is a German word that has no English translation but is a sensation we have all felt. Schadenfreude is the enjoyment you receive from observing the misfortune of others, especially when their folly is self-inflicted.

English also fails because we have a habit of overusing words to the point where they lose their meaning. Literally. Huge. Nice. Passion. Hater. OK. Hustle. There are other words with so many different meanings, making it difficult to convey your intent. Love for example. I love my kids, I love encouraging my friends, I love foggy mornings, I love scary movies, and I love pizza. One word, multiple meanings, easily confused without context.

Sorry is another word without a precise definition. It has multiple meanings and suffers from frequent usage. We say sorry like a reflex, latent instincts driving our need for acceptance. You're late. "Sorry." My dog is sick. "Sorry." I didn't get much sleep last night. "Sorry." You were speeding, following too closely, ran a stop sign, almost hit a Chevy, sped some more, failed to yield at a crosswalk, changed lanes without signalling while running a red light and speeding. "Sorry."

What does it mean to be sorry? Is it too late now to say sorry? How do you legitimately mean what you say? How do you apologize without being vague?

Let's return to the German language. The Germans have two methods of apologizing. "Es tut mir Leid," or "Entschuldigen bitte."

Es tut mir Leid is literally translated to mean "It does me suffering," or "It pains me so." If you look up "Es tut mir Leid" on Google Translate, it will give you "I'm sorry" as the English equivalent.

Entschuldigen is the verb to apologize. Bitte means please. Combine the two words and Google Translate returns "Please excuse me" as the result. Yet, entschuldigen is as much an apology as es tut mir Leid.

So what is the difference? One is an apology of empathy, the other is an apology of error. One says I'm sorry because I am grieved, the other says I'm sorry because I did something wrong. One says I feel your pain, the other says I caused your pain.

Perhaps, we could all benefit from learning a foreign language. With the benefit of the lexicon of other cultures, we could better express ourselves when our native tongue falls short.

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