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I just came across this quote by Albert Einstein when I was leafing through the book 'Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other To Succeed':

If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed

What does 'sorry lot' mean here?

I'm thinking sorry might mean pathetic/sad/loser and lot means group. Am I right?

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Tangentially, many quotes are falsely attributed to Einstein (happens to others, too, but especially Einstein). I think 'sorry lot' is fairly uncommon in US-English, so .. I've got doubts. Still a valid question, regardless of where the quote is from, of course. –  hunter2 May 1 '13 at 4:09

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

A sorry lot (sorry definition 2, lot definition 4) is simply a regrettable or deplorable lot; so a regrettable group. It is the same as saying a sorry bunch. It could potentially be interpreted as pathetic, but not usually. So you are correct; it means a sad group.

Note that sad does not mean that the members of the group are sad (emotionally), it means that the group as a whole is sad. Definitions 3 and 5 both apply.

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What do you mean when you say definition 2, definition 4? Are you referring to a specific dictionary website? –  Roronoa Zoro Feb 5 '12 at 6:47
Oh never mind. I just clicked on the words... Thanks –  Roronoa Zoro Feb 5 '12 at 6:47

Einstein is referring to the human race in general terms. I respect his deep insight and I am not arrogant enough to exclude myself from this quote. After thinking quite a bit on this quote, I think it's an introspect of humanity's need for religion just to be "good".

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Question was not about what the quote meant, but what the particular phrase meant. –  theUg Jan 27 '13 at 0:33

Einstein is reflecting on the condition of humanity in general. I have often heard the term 'sorry' used to describe something that is lacking in quality.

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Wow, I had no idea that the phrase goes back that far but I hear this today in casual Australian speech.

Here, it can indeed mean a sad bunch of people but you could use it to refer to other types of groups as well.

For example, a conservative person might say that unemployed people on the pension are 'a sorry lot'. (Of course, I'm not suggesting for a moment that this is the case!)

Alternatively, you might hear a teacher saying to rebellious students, 'You're a sorry lot, you kids!'

Perhaps, at work, I might refer to a group of arrogant customers as 'a sorry lot'.

I'm not going on any dictionary-esque definition but this is based on how the word is used in everyday Australia. I suppose that you could sum it up in saying that somebody will say it about a group that they consider to be misfortunate or inferior (among other things).

I think that the previous answer is certainly correct but I suggest that the definition is wider in scope. 'Sorry' and 'lot' don't need to be translated individually and literally as it is the two words together that create the meaning of the phrase. I have no evidence to support this, as yet, but I see the phrase as an idiom.

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