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We are not amused

01:00 Sat 05th Jan 2002 |

Q. Did Queen Victoria ever say that

A. The apocryphal tale goes that a certain groom-in-waiting named Alexander Grantham Yorke was caught by the monarch in mid-imitation of her and she allegedly rebuked him with the famous phrase. However, there is no evidence that she actually said it on that occasion or on any other, but it's gone into the language as an ironical rebuke, suitable for any circumstance.

Q. So, what's with the 'Royal We'

A. The use of 'we' by a sovereign to mean 'I' is said to go back to Richard I, who, in a Latin text, the Charter to Winchester (1190), used nos, 'we', rather than me, 'I'. It became a way for the sovereign to indicate that he or she was more than just any old individual and embodied the suggestion that the will of the monarch was the will of all the people of the land. These days is more often used by us commoners to make fun of royalty.

Q. Briefly, what is 'we'

A. 'We' is the first-person subject pronoun, plural, and generally means 'I and a group that includes me', but nothing is ever that simple. So, for example, 'We are not pleased' can be interpreted in any one of seven ways:

This person and I are not pleased

You and I are not pleased

You, this person and I are not pleased

This group, of which I am a part and you are not, is not pleased

The public in general is not pleased

I am not pleased

You are not pleased

The first four instances above can easily be mistaken for one another. If someone says, 'We've got tickets to see Bobby Davro,' you can't, without further background information, tell whether you're being told that you and the speaker have tickets, the tickets belong to the speaker and a group that includes you or they're in the possession of two or more people - including the speaker - who are not you.

The only thing you can be certain of is that the speaker will be at the Bobby Davro concert.

Q. And I and I

A. The use of 'I and I' to mean 'we' will be familiar to non-Jamaicans from it's frequent use in reggae lyrics, and it reflects the development in some creoles - as well as longer-established languages such as Malay - of making something plural by doubling up the singular.

Q. The 'Editorial We'

A. The 'Editorial We', used by writers to maintain an impersonal tone, is rarely encountered anywhere but in print. It can mean 'those of the same opinion as I, the writer' or 'the entity I represent'.

Q. And the 'Condescending We'

A. This form of 'we' is usually reserved for the interrogative sentence format, such as, 'Are we ready for bed ' It's something your mother may have asked you when you were very small. She wasn't really going to bed, though. Just you, and perhaps your sibling. Why people insist on saying 'we' to children instead of the much more straightforward 'you' when they do in fact mean 'you' is a complete mystery.

The medical profession has long been ridiculed for this particular affectation: 'How are we this morning ' 'Well, I'm fine. But I'm not sure about you, Doctor.'

Q. Oh, and 'We have become a grandmother'

A. In 1989 the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher informed the world that her daughter-in-law had given birth to a son with a telling use of the first-person plural. It's no secret that she and QEII didn't get on; wonder why

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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