nosism: The use of “we” in stating one’s own opinions.

Cover of Adolf Hitler: My Part In His DownfallTwo minutes later, a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said, “As from eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE.)

Spike Milligan, Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall (1971)

Milligan is accusing Neville Chamberlain of nosism there, for comic effect. The word comes from Latin nos, “we”, combined with the ubiquitous suffix -ism. Little -ism can do a lot of different things. It derives from Greek -ismos and Latin -ismus, which were used to form nouns of action from verbs, and -ism still does that job—baptize/baptism, for instance. But it is also used to designate the actions of particular kinds of people (heroism, patriotism), to denote a characteristic linguistic feature (Scotticism, Americanism, Spoonerism), to form words relating to prejudice and discrimination (racism, ageism, sexism) and to give names to all sorts of ideas and practices (radicalism, Buddhism, idealism). This last category is the one that nosism falls into; it’s also a continuing and fertile source of new -isms, to the extent that the perceived overuse of the -ism suffix has its own name—ismism.

Perhaps the most frequently cited example of nosism is Queen Victoria’s “We are not amused.” The phrase comes from an anecdote told in the anonymously authored book The Notebooks of a Spinster Lady 1878-1903 (which may have been written by Maria Shaw-Lefevre, sister of George Shaw-Lefevre, 1st Baron Eversley; or by Caroline Holland, daughter of Sir Henry Holland, 1st Baronet—take your pick). The story goes:

There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. “We are not amused,” said the Queen when he had finished.

Now, there’s an argument that Victoria might have been speaking on behalf of all the ladies present, and so using the word “we” in an entirely conventional way; but it’s usually assumed that she was employing nosism—specifically the royal we, or pluralis majestis. That usage is said to have its origin in the mediaeval notion of the Divine Right of Kings—since royal status came with divine approval, a sovereign spoke both personally and on behalf of God.

Pluralis majestis is not much used nowadays. Back in 1972, Queen Elizabeth II even poked fun at it. Speaking on behalf of herself and her husband during the celebration of their silver wedding anniversary, she said: “We—and by that I mean both of us—are most grateful …” Not many people have the opportunity to make a joke like that.

Pluralis majestis is an “exclusive we”—the person being addressed is not part of the “we”. Another exclusive we is the editorial we, in which journalists (particularly when writing anonymous editorials) take on the mantle of speaking on behalf of their organization. This lofty affectation has been frequently mocked:

It will be perceived that I have not availed myself of the editorial privilege of using the plural noun in speaking of myself. This is simply because I consider it a ridiculous affectation. I am a ‘lone, lorn man,’ unmarried, (the LORD be praised for His infinite mercy!) and though blessed with a consuming appetite, which causes the keepers of the house where I board to tremble, I do not think I have a tape-worm; therefore I have no claim whatever to call myself ‘WE:’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.

“John Phoenix” (George Derby), Phoenixiana (1856)

(See Quote Investigator‘s fine article for a very great deal more on that topic.)

So much for exclusive nosism. There’s an inclusive version, too—usually called the authorial we or pluralis auctoris, though it might more accurately be called the academic we, since it’s most commonly used by academic writers and speakers. Here’s an example from A.P. French‘s Newtonian Mechanics (I’ll elide the equations):

 From the geometry of the situation, it is possible to express both of the angles θ and φ in terms of two fixed distances, r and R, and the variable distance s. By two separate applications of the cosine rule we have:
From the first of these, by differentiation, we have:
Hence, substituting the values of cos φ and sin θ dθ in Eq. (8-12), we obtain:

And so on. French is of course doing all this work himself; his nosism is a hopeful effort to include the reader who is following along with the mathematics.

Pluralis auctoris, in which nosism is used in the expectation that the reader is included in the “we”, is one end of a spectrum of usage that extends to pluralis modestiae (the “modest plural”). In modestiae, the nosism is no more than a polite formulation—the speaker is an expert, and knows that the listener isn’t really part of the “we”, but uses the inclusive construction anyway, so as to soften the impression of giving a lecture. Our plumber is very good at pluralis modestiae—whenever I make a bright but unworkable suggestion he sucks his teeth for a moment and then says, “Well, we wouldn’t do that because …” It’s evident to both of us that I would have done exactly what I suggested, but the pluralis modestiae lets him tell me I’m wrong without appearing to tell me I’m wrong. In the academic world, it’s sometimes difficult to know if the speaker is using pluralis auctoris or pluralis modestiae—often, it’s a mixture of both.

Then, of course, there’s a sort of reverse nosism in which the speaker uses “we” but means “you”. I haven’t been able to find a specific word for this usage, but it’s often called the patronizing we:

And how are we today, Mrs Smith?

The name seems to be a good one—I’ve been trying to think of a non-patronizing example of this usage, but haven’t come up with any so far.

Talking about yourself in the third person is called illeism, from Latin ille, “he”. Julius Caesar did this in The Gallic War, presumably to lend his writing a spurious air of impartiality. More commonly, it’s used to transmit either humility (“Your servant awaits your bidding”) or superiority (“Professor Smith is not very pleased with you today”), by emphasizing the role rather than the person. The word illeism is also used to designate overuse of the third person pronoun, instead of using a person’s name. For some reason this seems to have been considered particularly offensive in the feminine—when I was a child, repeated use of “she” would earn the recondite reprimand, “Who’s ‘she’, the cat’s mother?” There seems to be no male equivalent.

Tuism, from Latin tu, “thou”, is (you’ve guessed it) the word for referring to yourself in the second person—it doesn’t come up much, apart from as something some people do when talking to themselves. It has a selection of other meanings, too—in ethics, the practice of putting the interest of others before your own; in linguistics, the use of the familiar second person pronoun (“thou”) rather than a more formal version. There hasn’t been much concern over linguistic tuism in English since the word thou fell out of use, but in other languages that have retained their familiar second person pronouns, it’s more of a big deal. In French, for instance, it involves the transition from calling someone vous to calling them tu—a process the French call tutoiement, with an accompanying verb, tutoyer.

Interestingly, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge sometimes gets the credit for coining both illeism and tuism. He was something of a wordsmith (I’ve mentioned him before in relation to the word transnihilation), and he is certainly the author of the earliest illustrative citations for illeism and tuism recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. He seems to have used them in conscious contrast with egotism (Latin ego, “I”), which in Coleridge’s day meant “overuse of the first person singular”—that is, talking about yourself too much.

But illeism, tuism and nosism certainly provide a selection of ways to talk about yourself too much without ever having to use the word “I”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.