The royal we and other nosisms

royalwe

“We are not amused,” said Queen Victoria, reportedly after Sir Arthur Helps, the clerk of the privy council, told a saucy story over a royal dinner at Windsor Castle one evening. “We have become a grandmother” was what Margaret Thatcher declared after the birth of her son’s first child. “We dropped off the damn money.” (Watch this clip to see which famous movie character said that line.)

The majestic plural (pluralis maiestatis in Latin, meaning literally “the plural of majesty”) is the self-referential use of a plural pronoun by a single person holding a high office, such as a monarch, earl, bishop or pope. (Or a proud British prime minister.) It’s thought by some that King Henry II was the first British monarch to use it, when the “divine right of kings” had come into effect and determined that the monarch acted in tandem with the deity. So when he used the word “we”, he actually meant “God and I.” Queen Elizabeth has occasionally made jokey or ironic references to the majestic plural during her reign; on her silver wedding anniversary in 1972, in an address at the Guildhall, she started by saying, “I think everybody really will concede that on this, of all days, I should begin my speech with the words ‘my husband and I’. We — and by that I mean both of us — are most grateful.” 

A form of nosism, the majestic plural is also called the “royal pronoun”, the “royal we” or the “Victorian we”. Nosism?  We don’t hear that word very much these days, even though we do hear examples of it in regular usage. It dates from the 19th century and means “the use of ‘we’ in stating one’s own opinions”.  So are there other nosisms — apart from the famous one used by Queen Victoria and Lady Thatcher?

Well, we do have the “editorial we”:  the pronoun used by opinion columnists and other media commentators who — effectively as anonymous spokespeople — express their opinions using we as representatives of their employers or even as the voice of assumed collective wisdom or agreement. It’s much like what we are doing here in this Glossophilia post…

In 1877, Roscoe Conkling, a senator from New York, didn’t like the way the new U.S. president, Rutherford B. Hayes, was using the “royal we” and he reportedly declared: “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.” It’s never been popular, the “royal we”…

We have a different category of ‘we’s that — unlike the exclusive “royal” and “editorial” ones above — are inclusive, ie. they imply that the opinion or action “we” express is not just that of the author or of those he represents, but includes the reader as well. Writers of scientific, mathematical or other academic literature tend to use we instead of the generic one or you when referring to a universally accepted or understood truth. Whereas a more colloquial form might be “when you mix yellow with blue you get green,” or “one generally curtsies when one meets the Queen”, in science we find that “we” reigns supreme.  As Albert Einstein said in his treatise on relativity: “We cannot ask whether it is true that only one straight line goes through two points. We can only say that Euclidean geometry deals with things called “straight line,” to each of which is ascribed the property of being uniquely determined by two points situated on it. The concept “true” does not tally with the assertions of pure geometry, because by the word “true” we are eventually in the habit of designating always the correspondence with a “real” object.” Can we say that Einstein’s use of “we” is a nosism? I would say no: if anything it’s quite the opposite, in that it’s one person attributing his or her thoughts and beliefs to those of humankind.

Then we have what Wikipedia calls the “patronizing we” — something that schoolteachers or parents of young children or smarmy friends or colleagues might use when they’re talking persuasively, condescendingly ironically, or sarcastically — and what they really mean is youUncyclopedia captures it perfectly in its patronizing we entry:

“Hello, good day. How are we feeling today? Good? Today we’re going to read an article. Are we ready? We’re going to have to concentrate really hard, or we might get lost. And we don’t want that to happen, do we? No, we don’t. So why don’t we get on with it and start the article?”

 

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