Mark Twain? Robert Ingersoll? Edgar Wilson Nye? John Phoenix? George H. Derby? Roscoe Conkling? John Fiske? Horace Porter? Henry David Thoreau? Hyman G. Rickover
Dear Quote Investigator: Some writers use “we” as a form of self-reference. For example, an author might state: We base our opinion on the highest authority. A comically reproachful remark about this practice has been attributed to Mark Twain:
Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.
Similar comments have been ascribed to humorist Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye), transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and orator Robert Ingersoll. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation known to QI appeared in the November 1855 issue of “The Knickerbocker” which contained an evaluation of a forthcoming book titled “Phoenixiana: Or Sketches and Burlesques” by John Phoenix. The reviewer reprinted a passage from the prospective volume by Phoenix that included a simple instance of the joke. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
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 to call myself ‘WE:’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.
John Phoenix was the pen name of the writer George H. Derby who was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army originally from California. When his book “Phoenixiana” was released in 1856 the printed text differed slightly from the passage above with the addition of the word “whatever” to yield the phrase “no claim whatever”. 2
Derby’s early version of the quip and other important citations were identified by linguist Ben Zimmer who currently writes a wonderful column about language for “The Wall Street Journal”. The jest has metamorphosed over the years, and a wide variety of risible rationales have been presented to justify the use of the pronoun “we” including these:
A person with a mouse in his or her pocket
A king, queen, emperor, or president
A pregnant woman
A newspaper or magazine editor
A person with a tapeworm
A schizophrenic individual
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1855 November, The Knickerbocker, Editor’s Table, Page 520, Volume XLVI, Number 5, Samuel Hueston, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1856 (Copyright 1855), Phoenixiana; or Sketches and Burlesques by John Phoenix (George Horatio Derby), Phoenix Installed Editor of the San Diego Herald, Quote Page 96, D. Appleton and Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩