Who are We?

Confession. These quotation are from the Ben Zimmer's "on Language" column in NYT Sunday Magazine 2 October 2010 (Copyright NYT 2010). But as he admits the conclusion has been manifest for over a 100 years.

Traditionally only royalty had the right to use we in referring personally, starting from at least Roman emperors. The one example you are most likely to have heard is Queen Victoria's reported response to the retelling of joke told, out of her hearing, to her ladies in waiting at a royal dinner party. After it was repeated, she is reputed to have said (about 1892) “ We are not amused. ” As Victoria was known to have a acute sense of humor, it was probably her attempt at a humorous repuke to a slightly inapproriate joke given the occasion.

Unfortunatly those of lessor rank and wit have picked up the habit of using we when I is meant. There are various justification for use — none that make any sense save to demonstrate the lack of any skill at writing or speaking. Below are some jokes made of practice. Perhaps they may cause you to avoid the use of we in referring to yourself.

“ Yes, I have noticed there are three classes of people who always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ They are emperors, editors and men with a tapeworm.” ” — NY Senator Roscoe Conklin objecting in 1877 to Preident Rutherford B Hayes overusing we (reported in St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Admiral Rickover (nuclear submarine fame) commenting to his Technical Director Rockwell on the sub project: “ He explained brusquely that only three types of individual were entitled to such usage: ‘The head of a sovereign state, a schizophrenic and a pregnant woman. Which are you, Rockwell?”

The eariest example connecting parasites [jww: earlier the word extended more broadly then today] and pronouns is believed due to a California humorist George Horatio Derby with the pen name John Phoenix who wrote in 1955 “ I do not think I have a tapeworm; therefore I have no claim whatever to call myself ‘we,’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.”

Perhaps you have heard this example of the danger of using we. In 1956 the Los Angeles Times columnist Gene Sherman put in print what was by then a well-travelled story about the Lone Ranger and his faithful sidekick, Tonto. Surrounded by “ wild, screaming Indians, the Lone Ranger desperately asks Tonto,“ What will we do?” Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” The joke is so well known (or so Ben Zimmer believes) that the last line is sufficient for rebuffing the overuse of we I hope this retelling will have that effect. Without any editing, I repeat the last paragraph of the article.

An equally colorful but less common American retort to the inclusive first-person plural pronoun is “We? You got a mouse in your pocket?” Curt Johnson, publisher of the Chicago literary magazine December, remarked in a 1966 article that he heard the line from a student talking back to a college instructor. Many other regional variants have sprung up, with “rat” or “frog” standing in for “mouse.” Another more sex-specific inquiry is about “a mouse in your purse.” Dabblers in nosism [jww: using we for I, from the Latin pronoun nos] beware: whether it’s tapeworms or rodents, saying we where I would do can expose you to accusations of infestation.


Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

Don't cite this page:
Refer instead to the NYT Sunday Magazine article cited at the beginning.
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[Friday, 17-Nov-2017 14:35:49 EST]
Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu on Tuesday, 13-Aug-2013 15:39:23 EDT