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.
The quip was mentioned in 1877 when a reunion was held for the officers who served in a Massachusetts infantry regiment. A paper about the history of the group was read, and the joke was attributed to John Phoenix: 3
He wouldn’t have needed John Phoenix’s tape-worm, in order to use the editorial “we.”
Also in 1877 a tripartite instance was employed by Roscoe Conkling who was a U. S. Senator from New York. Conkling was engaged in an intense dispute with President Rutherford B. Hayes at the time, and his response was corrosive when he was told that the President used the first person plural when discussing administrative decisions: 4
Conkling replied, very contemptuously, “Yes; I have noticed that there are three classes of people who always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ They are emperors, editors, and men with a tape-worm.”
In 1893 a trade journal for printers, book binders, and publishers called “The American Bookmaker” reported on a speech delivered to a gathering of printers by a military man named Horace Porter who employed an instance of the saying attributed to John Fiske: 5
John Fiske said that only three classes of people had the right to use the word “we,” a crowned head, the editor of a newspaper and a man with a tape worm. [Laughter.]
In 1895 a meeting of New York newspaper editors was held in New York City, and Horace Porter addressed this group also. Interestingly, a report on the event ascribed the quip directly to Porter: 6
Gen. Horace Porter presided, and among the best passages of his speech were the following: “There are only three persons who may use the plural we in speaking of themselves, a crowned head, an editor and a man with a tapeworm. The lives of most men are made up in two parts: The first in trying to get their names in the newspapers and the last in keeping them out.”
In 1897 an article in “Godey’s Magazine” ascribed a version of the joke to Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye) who was a popular comic author of the nineteenth century. Nye had died the previous year: 7
Certain strong stomachs think it greatly funny when Nye characteristically says, “There are only three classes that can legitimately use the editorial We: royalty, editors, and people with a tape-worm.” Certain equally, or more, excellent personages think it only unrefined.
In 1907 a different shorter version was attributed to Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye) in “The American Press Humorists’ Book”: 8
There are just two people entitled to refer to themselves as “we.” One is the editor and the other is the fellow with a tapeworm.
Mark Twain died in 1910, and the earliest linkage located by QI of the jest to the famed author appeared in a newspaper article in June 1914. A lecturer named Thomas M. Henneberry spoke to a reporter about his experiences traveling through Africa, and he credited the following instance to Twain: 9
When I make use of the word we, I am taking a privilege that the late Mark Twain said belonged to two men–one was the editor of a newspaper, the other the man with a tapeworm.
The above evidence was weak because it was printed so late. The following linkage of the quip to the well-known orator Robert G. Ingersoll who died in 1899 was also weak. The “Los Angeles Times” published the following in October 1914: 10
Ingersoll said that the only person entitled to use the imperial “we” in speaking of himself is a king, an editor, and a man with a tapeworm.
In 1951 a columnist in an Algona, Iowa newspaper described a joke referring to a small rodent that was told by a Legionnaire: 11
After 10 or 15 minutes of driving towards the outskirts of town, “Moody” Huenhold decided the party was lost.
“We’re lost,” he told the group.
“What do you mean WE — you got a mouse in your pocket,” quipped Bernard Dahlhauser, another passenger in the car.
In 1954 a columnist in a Denton, Texas newspaper shared the same joke with his readers: 12
The writer has been using the plural “We” in place of the more personal “I” in this column. The other day I was talking to Louis Gross of Lake Dallas and used the term “We” instead of “I”. Commented the sharp-witted Louie: “What do you mean, ‘We’? Do you have a mouse in your pocket?”
In 1989 a collection of academic papers about semiotics included an essay that implausibly assigned a version of the joke to Henry David Thoreau: 13
Ramanujan also recalled a statement by Thoreau that “we” is used by royalty, editors, pregnant women, and people who eat worms.
In 1992 a biographical work was published about Admiral Hyman G. Rickover who pioneered the use of nuclear power in the U.S. Navy. The author was an engineer who worked with Rickover, and he described some harsh words spoken by the Admiral: 14
One time he caught me using the editorial we, as in “we will get back to you by . . .” He explained brusquely that only three types of individual were entitled to such usage: “The head of a sovereign state, a schizophrenic, and a pregnant woman. Which are you, Rockwell?”
In 2010 linguist Ben Zimmer wrote a column in “The New York Times” discussing this topic and reporting on his discovery of George H. Derby’s primordial instance. 15
In conclusion, a simple version of the joke was employed in 1856 by humorist George H. Derby who wrote under the pseudonym John Phoenix. This version mentioned only the farcical tapeworm explanation for using ‘we’. In 1877 politician Roscoe Conkling used a more elaborate three part version with “emperors, editors, and men with a tape-worm.” Based on current evidence Derby and Conkling can be credited with their respective quips though Conkling probably built on Derby’s effort.
The support for crediting Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, and Edgar Wilson Nye was much weaker. QI was unable to find direct quotations, and the attributions were all posthumous. The linkage to Henry David Thoreau appeared to be spurious.
Image Notes: Portrait of George Derby from The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco at sfmuseum.org. Picture of statue depicting person holding crown from fotobias on Pixabay. Picture of stack of newspapers from fas on Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Laurence Horn who raised this topic on a mailing list in 2009. Also thanks to Ben Zimmer who located some key citations. Additional thanks to William Mullins who located the 1951 mouse citation.)
Update History: On June 5, 2019 the 1951 citation was added to the article.
- 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 ↩
- 1882, History of the Second Massachusetts Regiment of Infantry: A Prisoner’s Diary, A Paper Read at the Officers’ Reunion in Boston on May 11, 1877, Author: Samuel M. Quincy (Captain Second Massachusetts Regiment of Infantry, Brevet Brigadier General Volunteers), Quote Page 15, Printed by George H. Ellis, Franklin Street, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1877 October 19, Daily Illinois State Journal, Conkling and Blaine, (Acknowledgement to “Mack’s” Washington Special St. Louis Globe-Democrat), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1893 May, The American Bookmaker, Volume 16, A Bi-Centennial Celebration: Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Introduction of Printing into New York by William Bradford, (Speaker Gen. Horace Porter), Quote Page 195, Column 3, Howard Lockwood & Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 February 7, Public Opinion, Volume 18, Number 6, Read Your Newspaper, Quote Page v, Column 3, Published by The Public Opinion, Washington and New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1897 April, Godey’s Magazine, Volume 134, The Bookery: The Ways of Bill Nye, Start Page 428, Quote Page 429, Column 1, Published by The Godey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907, The American Press Humorists’ Book: “Bill” Nye Monument Edition, Edited by Frank Thompson Searight, Section: “Bill” Nye Said, Page Unnumbered, (Second page of section), Published by Frank Thompson Searight, Los Angeles, California. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1914 June 10, The Ogden Examiner, “Thos. M. Henneberry Tells of Experiences in Travel Through Wilds of Africa”, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Ogden, Utah. (NewpaperArchive) ↩
- 1914 October 16, Los Angeles Times, Section II, Gov. Johnson’s Tapeworm, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1951 February 27, Kossuth County Advance, Heard Along the Main Stem by J.T.C., Quote Page 4, Column 1, Algona, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1954 September 15, Denton Record-Chronicle, Section 2, Down On the Farm by Allen Bogan, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Denton, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1989, Semiotics, Self, and Society, Edited by Benjamin Lee and Greg Urban, Pronouns, Persons, and the Semiotic Self by Milton Singer, Start Page 229, Quote Page 281, Published Mouton de Gruyter: A Division of Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2002 (Copyright 1992), The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference by Theodore Rockwell, Quote Page 82, (Originally published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland in 1992), An Authors Guild BackInPrint Edition, Published by iUniverse, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2010 October 3, New York Times, On Language: We: The perils of a presumptuous pronoun by Ben Zimmer, Quote Page SM18, New York. (ProQuest) ↩