The Grammarphobia Blog

Turning up our nosism

Q: Pat had a brief discussion on WNYC of why “we” has been insinuated so much into professional writing. I tried—but was not fast enough—to email and remind her that the noun for this procedure is “nosism,” taken (I believe) from the French for “we.”

A: Thanks for calling this rare and interesting noun to our attention. And “our” in this case really does refer to two of us—Pat and Stewart. It’s not an example of nosism!

“Nosism” is the practice of referring to oneself in the plural, as when a writer calls himself “we” instead of “I.” The word comes from the Latin nos (“we”), so it literally means we-ism.

When it was first recorded in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nosism” was the use of “we” in reference to a self-centered group rather than to an individual, so it meant something like clubbiness.

The OED’s first citation comes from Black’s Edinburgh Magazine (1819): “The egotism or nosism of the other luminaries of the Lake School, is at times extravagant enough, and amusing enough withal.”

It didn’t take long for “nosism” to mean the use of “we” by an individual.

The earliest example is from an 1829 issue of the Examiner, a 19th-century British weekly: “We will be consistent according to the fashionable virtue of the day in nos-ism.”

And here’s how Ben Zimmer used the word in a 2010 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine:

“Given the accumulated resentment of ‘nosism’ (using we for I, from the Latin pronoun nos), it’s little wonder that modern literary writers have rarely tried to write narratives in the first-person plural.”

The noun “nosism” may be rare, but the practice of nosism isn’t. The use of “we” for “I” dates back to early Old English, according to the OED.

One of the purposes of this usage, the dictionary says, is “to secure an impersonal style and tone, or to avoid the obtrusive repetition of ‘I.’ ”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an Old English translation of a 5th-century Christian history written in Latin by Paulus Orosius, a student of St. Augustine.

In more modern times, this sense came to be known as the editorial “we” because it was used by journalists writing unsigned articles and editorials.

But, as the OED says, “This practice has become less usual during the 20th cent. and is limited to self-conscious and humorous contexts.”

Here’s an example from Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “We shall never forget the mingled feelings of awe and respect, with which we used to gaze on the exterior of Newgate in our schoolboy days.”

We have to disagree with the OED about the use of the editorial “we” today by journalists. The practice isn’t all that unusual, especially in signed articles that refer to the author.

A New York Times reporter, for example, used it repeatedly in a recent nightlife column, including a mention that Gwyneth Paltrow “agreed to an interview if we waited while she and Molly Sims schmoozed.”

Another kind of we-ism is sometimes called the royal “we” because of its use by sovereigns and rulers.

But the early history of this usage is unclear, the OED says, because some apparent Old English quotations “may rather show an inclusive plural use of the pronoun.”

Genuine uses of the royal “we” from Middle English and later include citations from Henry III (1298), King James I (1603), and King Charles I (1642).

But perhaps the best-known example of the royal “we” is the famous “We are not amused” quotation attributed to Queen Victoria.

Fred R. Shapiro writes in the Yale Book of Quotations that the comment  was first reported in an 1887 newspaper article that cited Victoria’s private secretary, Sir Arthur Helps, as the source.

Sir Arthur, according to this account, said the Queen used the line to snub him for telling a funny story to her ladies-in-waiting in an attempt to enliven a boring dinner.

But we’re not through with we-ism yet! There’s a kind of “we,” the OED says, that’s used “confidentially or humorously” to the person being addressed and that dates back to the early 18th century.

Here’s Oxford’s first such citation, from the playwright John Vanbrugh’s comedy The False Friend (1702): “Well, old Acquaintance, we are going to be Married then?”

It’s this kind of “we” that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is talking about when it describes two sub-genres of we-ism.

Quoting a 1972 usage guide, M-W characterizes these as “the kindergarten we (We won’t lose our mittens, will we?)” and “the hospital we (How are we feeling this morning?).”

With that, we’ll sign off—both of us.

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