Use of "we" in Victorian era

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Use of "we" in Victorian era

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jul 10, 2007, 1:20pm

Back in January, I posted the query below to the Military History group and to Victoriana. There have been no replies, so user "varielle" has suggested that I repost it here.

I'm reading a British officer's account of his service in the Crimean War. (He was a Colonel at the time of writing.) It is pretty well-written, and he even explains a military term now and then. But I have a question.

All along, I'd assumed that "we" referred to the regiment, or to him and his fellow officers, according to context. But I was stopped in my tracks when "we" received a bullet through "our leg"!

I know that Victoria used the "royal we," but I hadn't encountered a subject using it. Was this some sort of Victorian "military-speak"? Does anyone know?

jul 10, 2007, 2:21pm

I've heard the royal "we" beyond Queen Victoria. I think a parent might use it to indicate that an inappropriate behavior of a child is frowned upon: the child is supposed to think that both parents disapprove, but in actual fact, the other parent doesn't even know.
The military man using the "we" is probably trying to write in a formal way, and to remove his emotions from the topic. Perhaps, this is supposed to indicate a objectivity. I have never actually heard strong felt emotions or hurts sublimated with a "we."

jul 10, 2007, 4:58pm

Victorian journalists were rather too fond of the slightly pompous "editorial we", used as a way of making yourself more important by speaking for the paper, as an institution, rather for yourself. In humorous writing you sometimes see this style being used in deliberately inappropriate settings to give a mock-heroic flavour. I can't just find an example, but a browse through journalism by Dickens, Thackeray, Mark Twain, J.K. Jerome, etc., would probably turn something up.

Maybe that's what's going on here -- the author is using an ironic, self-deprecatory style because he doesn't want to come over as boasting about his heroism?

jul 10, 2007, 6:24pm

"We were shot in our leg" does sound like something Bunter might say if Lord Peter were shot in the leg.

It didn't come across to me as ironic or self-deprecating; more as straight factual reporting. I wondered if it might have been a "fashion" in military combat reports at the time.

Background, if it might help: The writer died in 1860, at age 43, so he wrote in the late 1850's. He would almost certainly have attended public schools until purchasing his commission as Ensign at age 16.

jul 10, 2007, 11:02pm

>I can't just find an example, but a browse through journalism by Dickens, Thackeray, Mark Twain, J.K. Jerome, etc., would probably turn something up.

Read Laurel Wellman's contemporary work to see this in action.

jan 16, 2008, 1:07am

Could it be a sort of symthpathising with the reader sort of thing?

Whenever I've spoken (most) lecturers and doctors they talk in the "we" we talking about any given thing.

maj 1, 2010, 1:07pm

When I went to Georgetown (School of Foreign Service) I recall very clearly that another student from Boston always said "we'll see you later" even when he was alone. Unless he was an anachronism . . .

I assume it all started as a modesty thing.

"We don't talk about ourselves."

I recall my Dad who was not from Boston but of protestant Pennsylvannia background was always gong on about the dangers of Narcissism and how men should not look in the mirror (though, I, popping my teenage zits, found it hard to imagine what he meant) and we thought East Europeans seemingly celebrating themselves in Olympic events were extremely rude . . . In other words, the "we" well fits an age when we waved with a smile at others to celebrate our victories rather than pumping fists into the air and screaming "yes!" with ferocious expressions . . .