Is sorry the right word?

When Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologises to the Aboriginal Australia for the stolen generation (seen notes), will sorry be the right word? Saying sorry has failed to heal community divisions because the word is a general practitioner being asked to be a specialist.

The 1997 Bringing them Home Report started the movement in earnest. No one disagrees with it when it says:

The first step in any compensation and healing for victims of gross violations of human rights must be an acknowledgment of the truth and the delivery of an apology.

But is sorry weighty enough for an apology! The public debate has had Australians across the country arguing strongly about meaning. A semantic debate overshadows what should be a straightforward matter of reconciliation and recognition.

So what does it mean? The ABC reports that Christine King from the Stolen Generations Alliance said:

Sorry is the most important word because it has great meaning in our community. It means having empathy and compassion and understanding.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sorry in several ways, among them, feeling distress or pity through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune or feeling or expressing regret or penitence; similarly the Macquarie, but it adds an entry on Sorry Day to help capture this context.

Indigenous Co-Chair of the National Sorry Day Committee, Helen Moran, is concerned that the refusal of compensation may make the apology ‘nothing more than a “tokenistic five letter word”‘ (see notes).

It will be tokenistic if it is only taken to mean we are sympathetic with Aboriginal plight. We should rather exploit the depth of our language and be far less ambiguous: Kevin Rudd should say we are:

  • compunctious
  • contrite
  • penitent
  • penitential
  • regretful
  • remorseful, or
  • repentant

and leave sorry for when we spill the milk.


National Sorry day Committee – Sorry business more than a word (no longer available).

Post from 13 February 2008