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The Royal or Editorial "We"

Ben Zimmer has an article at The New York Times addressing a person using the word “we”, sometimes referred to as “the royal we”, when speaking or writing. When it’s not clear who the person is speaking for, it can sound downright pompous. A New York senator, Roscoe Conkling, once said, “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.”

What is it about the presumptuous use of we that inspires so much outrage, facetious or otherwise? The roots of these adverse reactions lie in the haughtiness of the majestic plural, or royal we, shared by languages of Western Europe since the days of ancient Roman emperors. British sovereigns have historically referred to themselves in the plural, but by the time of Queen Victoria, it was already a figure of fun. Victoria, of course, is remembered for the chilly line, “We are not amused” — her reaction, according to Sir Arthur Helps, the clerk of the privy council, to his telling of a joke to the ladies in waiting at a royal dinner party. Margaret Thatcher invited mocking Victorian comparisons when she announced in 1989, “We have become a grandmother.”

Nameless authors of editorials may find the pronoun we handy for representing the voice of collective wisdom, but their word choice opens them up to charges of gutlessness and self-importance. As the fiery preacher Thomas De Witt Talmage wrote in 1875: “They who go skulking about under the editorial ‘we,’ unwilling to acknowledge their identity, are more fit for Delaware whipping-posts than the position of public educators.”

I have to admit I have done this here at Neatorama, and I assure you that it is only in circumstances where I am speaking on behalf of the blog, meaning that Alex and I, and sometimes others as well, are in agreement. Forgive me? Link -via Carl Zimmer


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