Only Monarchs, Editors, and People with Tapeworms Have the Right to Use the Editorial ‘We’

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.

Continue reading Only Monarchs, Editors, and People with Tapeworms Have the Right to Use the Editorial ‘We’

Notes:

  1. 1855 November, The Knickerbocker, Editor’s Table, Page 520, Volume XLVI, Number 5, Samuel Hueston, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 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

Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People

Eleanor Roosevelt? Charles Stewart? Henry Thomas Buckle? James H. Halsey? Hyman G. Rickover? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is largely used to deride people who are preoccupied with gossip:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

The words are attributed to social activist and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have been unable to find a solid supporting citation. Similar statements have been ascribed to philosopher Socrates and U.S. Naval engineer Hyman Rickover. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. As a child in London, Stewart listened to the conversation of dinner guests such as history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle who would sometimes discourse engagingly for twenty minutes on a topic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

His thoughts and conversation were always on a high level, and I recollect a saying of his, which not only greatly impressed me at the time, but which I have ever since cherished as a test of the mental calibre of friends and acquaintances. Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”

Stewart was pleased with Buckle’s adage, but he did not let its implicit guidance dictate his conversations. He wished to avoid the tedium of monotonous dialogues:

The fact, of course, is that any of one’s friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs.

Buckle’s tripartite remark specified the categories: persons, things, and ideas. The questioner’s statement used the division: people, events, and ideas. So the statements did differ; indeed, the remark evolved during decades of circulation, and it was reassigned to a variety of individuals.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People

Notes:

  1. 1901, Haud Immemor: Reminiscences of Legal and Social Life in Edinburgh and London 1850-1900 by Charles Stewart, Quote Page 33, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. (Google Books Full View) link