Q: Why do people use “one” instead of “I” or “me”? I would love to know the history of this one.
A: As you might guess, “one” is among the earliest words in recorded English.
In early Old English, it could be a noun or an adjective (expressing the simple numeral) as well as an indefinite article (an early version of “a” or “an”).
In later Old English, “one” took on various pronoun senses in which it could stand for a single person or thing.
But the usage you’re asking about represents a function of “one” that goes beyond any of these senses. In this usage, “one” is a third-person substitute for a first-person pronoun—that is, “one” stands in for the speaker.
At first, this “one” had a very broad sense and could mean anybody. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of the pronoun:
“Any person of undefined identity, esp. one considered as representative of people in general; any person at all, including (esp. in later use) the speaker himself or herself; ‘you, or I, or anyone’; a person in general.”
People have been using “one” as a generic pronoun in writing since the early 1300s, according to OED citations. But this later example, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), will be more familiar: “Why Romeo may one aske?”
And here’s a 20th-century example from a favorite author of ours, Nancy Mitford: “One is not exactly encouraged to use one’s brain over here, you know.” (From her 1931 novel Highland Fling.)
The use of “one” to mean oneself exclusively—that is, the speaker instead of just anyone—is a further refinement of the pronoun. And we use “refinement” deliberately, since the use of “one” to mean “I” or “me” strikes many people as over-refined.
This narrower use dates from the 18th century and, according to the OED, is “associated esp. with British upper-class speech, and now freq. regarded as affected.”
The earliest example cited in Oxford is a line spoken by an affected young lady in The Provok’d Husband (1728), a play by Colley Cibber and John Vanbrugh:
“One has really been stufft up in a Coach so long, that—Pray Madam—could not I get a little Powder for my Hair?”
This more recent citation is from Frank Johnson’s Out of Order (1982), a collection of political sketches: “How to persuade the Telegraph that … one was a man of immense culture? (Saying ‘one’ when you mean ‘I’ would do for a start, I decided.)”
But whether you use “one” to mean “I/me” or an indefinite someone, it’s a third-person singular pronoun. So grammatically it’s treated like “he/him” or “she/her,” even when it implies “I/me.”
The possessive form of the pronoun is “one’s,” and the reflexive is “oneself.” Those forms, however, as well as “one” used as an object rather than a subject, are more characteristic of British than American speech.
As the OED explains, the forms “his, him, himself … are still usual in the U.S.; thus, ‘If one showed oneself (himself) to one’s (his) townsmen, they would know one (him).’ ”
Incidentally, we once heard from a reader who was bugged by the use of “you” as an indefinite pronoun in place of “one”, as in “You meet all kinds” instead of “One meets all kinds.” As we replied in a post, this use of “you” is standard English.
Finally, we’d like to expand on our comment at the beginning that “one” was an early version of “a” or “an.”
In addition to its numerical sense, the Old English word for “one” (written an, aan, ane, etc.) had a sense that was indistinguishable from the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) in modern English.
For example, an fugel meant both “a fowl” and “one fowl”; ane burh meant both “a fortress” and “one fortress.” The words for the indefinite article and the adjective weren’t differentiated until the Middle English period.
In fact, as we’ve written on our blog, “one” still serves as an indefinite article in some varieties of English, mainly in India, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and parts of the US South.
Oxford gives several examples, including this one from the Indian English Supplement to the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (5th ed., 1996): “I met one lady the other day.”
In the immortal words of Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”
[Note, Dec. 28, 2014. A reader writes: “I always thought the use of ‘one’ as a pronoun had to be related to the French pronoun on, which means essentially the same thing. Is this etymologically significant?” Our reply: The evolution of “one” as an indefinite generic pronoun developed in late Middle English, and some have suggested that it may have been influenced by Anglo-Norman (hom, on, un), or by Old or Middle French. But as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “this is not regarded as a necessary influence by some scholars.” In other words, the developments could have been parallel.]