The majestic plural

We have been asked, by correspondents twa, to abandon the pluralis maiestatis. Both queries were from Americans who find the practice unbearably arch. It was abandoned two Popes ago at Rome, & by the present Queen in England soon after she ascended (only then to be parodied for, “My husband & I”). It is condemned as a fustian & pompous conceit, by one of our critics, who came close to making us squirm; & by the other, who didn’t, as an encouragement to grammatical error. Surely, he argued, “we ourself” is inadmissable into English. But if ever it was, it got by Queen Victoria, who was never shy with that reenforcing pronoun.

In Fowler no ruling we find; only his fear of confusing one “we” with another. Not that we looked very hard, for our habit is to work from vaguely remembered precedent. Indeed, over the years, having found delicious precedents, we have picked many fights with newspaper sub-editors. They would proudly flag what they took for a solecism, in a writer obnoxiously prim. But we’d be waiting with the quote from some “classic” English author, in which the act prohibited had been unambiguously performed.

As we vaguely recall from school days, the question at issue can vex only moderns, for in Middle English there were no distinctions of number in reinforcing or reflective pronouns. Some nevertheless think an “-en” ending could make these plural, but they are wrong & one will find e.g. “yourselven” addressed to a single person, passim, in the Canterbury Tales; & in the up-so-doun world of the Wife of Bath, when it takes two to tangle, they are singularly “ourselven tuo.”

It is worth asserting that the pluralis maiestatis, called by some journalists “the royal wee,” is different in kind from “the editorial we,” which does require consistent plurals. This is because the conceit is instead to be writing on behalf of some editorial board, or committee. Sometimes it is used to feign the very existence of a larger entity, in the manner of the Wizard of Oz. But we prefer to keep our conceits on a higher level.