We begin today’s post with a discussion of the rare English word nosism, which, but for an old prejudice against English and in favor of Latin and Greek, we might otherwise be calling weism. We who have studied Spanish or grew up speaking the language recognize the nos in nosism as the form of the Spanish first person plural pronoun that acts as a direct and indirect object, but in Latin nos functioned as the direct object or the subject of a verb. A Roman emperor or dictator, who we can agree had an overwhelming need for self-aggrandizement, might speak to his subjects with nos, thereby puffing himself up into a plural long before cloning became a biological possibility. Nosism is a name for that imperial or royal we, and more generally for an excessive use of we.

Astute readers will have noticed that we began today’s entry with the word we and repeated it as the subject of several more clauses in the first paragraph. We sometimes call that sort of usage the literary or author’s we, with which we aim to create a bond with our readers. We also note that Latin nos was a short word, one that modern Spanish has felt the need to build up into nosotros, which we can see really means ‘we others’ or ‘the rest of us.’ What we find harder to see until someone points it out to us is that English us, whose Germanic ancestor *uns still had an n in the middle of it, is a cognate of Latin and Spanish nos.

For more on nosism, I (yes, I) call your attention to Ben Zimmer’s “On Words” column in the October 3, 2010, New York Times, which prompted today’s blog entry.

©2016 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Dec 30, 2016 @ 11:10:29

    In order for this to soak in, I’ll read it several more times over the next few days – but.. Eureka, Professor, ‘We’ thinks she’s got it!!!!

    I loved the lesson and also appreciated the link…



  2. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Dec 30, 2016 @ 20:29:28

    Thanks for one more chuckle for the end of year smiles! Hmmm, como se dice, “chuckle?”


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 02, 2017 @ 10:39:13

    This intrigued me: “We also note that Latin nos was a short word, one that modern Spanish has felt the need to build up into nosotros, which we can see really means ‘we others’ or ‘the rest of us.’ ”

    An English construction that came to mind was our phrase, “all y’all,” which everyone knows is the plural of “y’all.” I could be wrong, but it seems that both nosotros and “all y’all” function as intensifiers.

    And speaking of plurals, when I first saw nosism, I couldn’t make sense of it. I read it first as “no-sees-um.” That’s probably because I know people who use “no-sees-ums” as the plural of “no-see-um” — that annoying little insect that’s so common in the summer. (Language on the docks can be interesting.)

    As for the royal, or authorial, “we,” there’s very little I find more annoying. It’s in a close tie with “one”: as in, “one would think.” I suppose it’s my curmudgeonly side coming out, but when I run into “we this” or “we that,” I usually think, “Speak for yourself, Buster.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 02, 2017 @ 11:30:21

      The all y’all is a great example of the way an expression (in this case y’all) loses strength or transparency (speakers lose sight of the fact that y’all = you all), and people feel the need to reinforce it. A good English parallel is all alone, which etymologically is all all one, and in which the reinforcing amounts to a repetition of something that was in the original expression.

      I’ve heard no-see-um used as a synonym of chigger. Is that the annoying insect you meant?

      When a waiter or waitress asks “What are we having?” I’m tempted to say “Are you going to eat with us?”


  4. shoreacres
    Jan 02, 2017 @ 11:43:19

    Compared to no-see-ums, chiggers are sweethearts. Here’s the scoop on the family. They fly in swarms, and they’re so tiny you truly can’t see them coming. Down here, they can be especially bad around the barrier islands and fringes of the bay.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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