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I'm trying to find out how come we say lucky me and stupid us rather than lucky I and stupid we. My understanding is that this is not a recent invention, but a relic from the distant past where it was a dative construction. However, I don't see the reason for using any case other than the nominative in this construction to begin with.

  • He went surfing. → Lucky him went surfing.
  • I got pulled over. → Stupid me got pulled over.
  • They bought a house. → Thoughtless them bought a house.

This is rather intriguing. After thinking about it for a while, I couldn't come up with any other language, Germanic or otherwise, where simply introducing an adjective would dictate a change of grammatical case. This appears to be an English peculiarity. How far can it be traced back? Can anyone comment on its background?

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For myself, I'd just like to point out that I'd say "Lucky him to go surfing" or "Lucky him, he went surfing." The second one does sound normal to me, though. Not sure if this is just me. –  kitukwfyer Aug 27 '10 at 20:10
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Those sentences don't sound grammatical to me. In all cases I would say something like, "lucky him, he...", "stupid me, I...", "thoughtless them, they...". –  Kosmonaut Aug 29 '10 at 2:25
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On a side note: the accusativus exclamationis is also possible in Latin, in addition to the vocativus. –  Cerberus Apr 21 '11 at 23:47
    
I see that I owe you a discussion of “ethical me”. Patience, for all things come to those who wait. –  tchrist Oct 27 '12 at 21:28
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

What is going on here is somewhat complex, but there are two main, interacting factors:

  1. The default case in English is the objective case. That explains why it is stupid me, silly me, lucky us. The adjectival use is “recent”.

  2. When something like stupid me pr lucky you is used as a subject, it requires third-person concordance not first- or second-person. This is done for distancing.

Both matter, but the second may dominate.

For the first matter, when we have a pronoun that needs an adjective in English, we use the objective case. This appears to be a recent phenomenon, not attested in Old or Middle English, first appearing in Early Middle English. The first citations of for adjective-qualified pronouns in the OED are clearly in the object slot, but then things get muddy with time:

  • A. 1586 Sidney Arcadia ɪɪ. (1590) 179 b, ― Vntil you came, after so many victories to make a conquest of poore me.
  • 1608 Shaks. Per. ɪ. iv. 69 ― To··make a conquest of vnhappie mee.
  • 1646 Crashaw Poems 149 ― And full of nothing else but empty me.
  • 1809 Malkin Gil Blas x. x, ― As for poor little me,··I was sent to the foundling hospital.
  • 1814 Jane Austen Let. 2 Mar. (1932) II. 92, ― I am to call upon Miss Spencer: Funny me!
  • 1961 P. Dennis’ (title) ― Little me: the intimate memoirs of that great star··Belle Poitrine.
  • 1973 D. Halliday Dolly & Starry Bird viii. 111 ― ‘As Timothy would say, silly me,’ Johnson said in a voice as hard as his bifocals.

Another example of this adjective qualification of a pronoun is this time with us, again taken from the OED:

  • 1940 M. Dickens Mariana viii. 312 ― ‘How could you know I’d like something like this?’··‘It just looked absolutely us, somehow.’

So when you use an adjective on a pronoun, it takes the objective case no matter what — and it is something of “its own thing”, a set phrase fused together into something new and different structurally, as will be demonstrated in the second matter.

Here first are corpus examples by way of illustration:

  • It’s my last table, and the kitchen wants to close. So lucky me has to try and wrangle their order. It ain’t easy. [reference]
  • I was just that insignificant little wolf pup, to be kicked around and sat in a corner, because everyone in the world was so right, and only silly me was wrong. [reference]
  • Lucky me gets to bide my time with an old man who I saw way too much of during our tinkle break. [reference]
  • The dregs of this fair city seem to congregate here every weekend and lucky me gets to stand on the door and watch them bounce in with their put on limps and moody faces. [reference]
  • He tried so hard to be nice and most men when they hurt you, they want to have sex afterwards. Stupid me goes ahead in all the pain I was and did to shut him up. [reference]
  • So stupid me goes back. I put the fin on the table. [reference]
  • Hell if I know why, but lucky me has received six calls now. [reference]
  • I like using men as substitutes for my ex-fiancé, since stupid me doesn’t know when to let go and move on with my life. [reference]
  • She turned round to face him. ‘But I am, aren’t I? Different. I mean, lucky me has been fortunate enough to be called back . . . to your bed, more. . . . [reference]

Note that this construct preserves number, even though it warps person. So a stupid us still takes a plural verb; it does not switch to a singular one:

  • Yet stupid us get baited again and again and again with campaign promises. [reference]

An especially interesting case is this one:

  • Just think, lucky you gets himself a whole twenty four hours of looking after this little kitten with no one else around to bother us. [reference]

Again you see it shifting to the third person, but this time coming from the second person instead of the first. Moreover, the reflexive concordance is with himself not with yourself. These are all third-person usages.

So what happens is that you are taking ADJECTIVE PRONOUN, which takes the objective case, and then turning around and using that as a third-person subject, even when it is a first- or a second-person thing. This distances the speaker a bit from what they are saying, as though it were someone else they were talking about. It is hard to see how else one would phrase such a thing. Consider:

  • Stupid me gets to work late.
  • Being stupid, I get to work late.
  • I stupidly get to work late.

Neither of those second two examples works as well as the first one does.

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I wondered whether a template for these constructions might be 'Woe is me', Shakespeare (Hamlet) and KJV . Apparently, Wycliffe's Bible translation (1382) has a precursor: Job 10:15: If I be wicked, woe unto me; and if I be righteous, yet will I not lift up my head. I am full of confusion; therefore see thou mine affliction ... where the accusative follows a preposition. So, perhaps elision (woe be unto me -> woe is unto me -> woe is me) is (as often) the culprit. Similarly, stupid me might derive from (how) stupid of me (to ...). –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 27 '12 at 21:56
    
@EdwinAshworthI wondered the very same thing, and indeed started at the same place, but could locate no self-convincing evidence for its developmental transition. I did look. The problem is that woe is a noun, not an adjective. –  tchrist Oct 27 '12 at 22:00
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Interesting question. My guess at what is going on is that the construction of the phrase [adjective] + [objective pronoun] is thought of as a unit so it can be used a subject of the sentence similar to a proper noun, like in these sentences.

Stupid John. He dropped the camera. Stupid me. I dropped the camera. Stupid John dropped the camera. Lucky John caught it before it hit the floor. Stupid me dropped the camera. Lucky me caught it before it hit the floor.

I am referring to myself in the third person with this construction. (It is 'Stupid me drops the camera.' and 'Lucky me catches the camera.') It would not be as clear or personal if I use my name instead of a pronoun referring to myself.

This still doesn't answer the question of why it is "lucky me" instead of "lucky I". In English an object pronoun identifies a person more than the subject pronoun, like in the following.

  • The Me Generation not The I Generation
  • MobileMe not MobileI
  • Despicable Me not Despicable I
  • Marley and Me not Marley and I
  • Who is there? Me. not Who is there? I
  • You, Me, and Everyone not You, I, and Everyone
  • What, me worry? (Mad magazine slogan)

Arnold Zwicky writing on the Language Log in a post called "Here Comes the Accusative" discusses the use of accusative pronouns:

English verbs in finite clauses agree with nominative subjects, but default to third-person singular otherwise; this sort of defaulting is very well known in other languages, and can be seen elsewhere in English (either it's Poor me is going to suffer for this or you can't say it at all; but certainly *Poor me am going to suffer for this is just out, as, for that matter, is *Poor I am going to suffer for this).

Ok, but what licenses accusative subjects? Putting aside some well-known complexities like coordinate subjects and also putting aside a slew of normative prescriptions, the basic rule for nominative/accusative choice in English is: nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise. This rule has to be understood literally: only subjects of finite clauses; things understood, or interpreted, as subjects of such clauses don't count. So free-standing pronouns are accusative, even when they're interpreted as subjects: Who did that? Me.

Thomas Grano in his honors thesis at Stanford University further explains the adjective + pronoun construction.

2.2.1 Adjective + pronoun

...in some very limited contexts a pronoun can be modified by an adjective, and in such cases the pronoun must be accusative. According to CGEL [Cambridge Grammar of the English Language] pronouns can combine only with a handful of adjectives (lucky, poor, and silly are cited)...

CGEL observes that the pronoun in such contexts must be accusative, but erroneously claims that it can never occur in subject position. On the contrary Google Groups turn up such examples as:

Silly me forgot to bring a jacket. oh poor him had to suffer with some chocolate and caramel ice cream.

As these examples show, the nominative case required by the finite verb is overridden by the pronoun's combination with an adjective.

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Can I find bizarre things like "Lucky me caught it before it hit the floor." by doing an internet search? If you are a native speaker of English then shame on you for posting this nonsense. –  delete Aug 28 '10 at 22:55
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@Shinto: Googling returns tons of examples, I'll try to squeeze a few into this comment. ◆ "Stupid me went to the gas station to fill up my cannondale tire — all the air came out." ◆ "I stopped talking to him for a long time, then stupid me got a MySpace account so I could keep in touch easier with my friends in New York." ◆ "I have maternity jeans that I have to keep hiking up because stupid me got them prematurely at H&M in September thinking I would get really fat." ◆ "Since all my other stuff played fine I figured it was just the record, so stupid me went and bought another copy." –  RegDwigнt Aug 30 '10 at 4:22
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Comprehensive you has certainly pwned this question! –  FumbleFingers May 22 '11 at 15:10
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What's happening is the subject pronoun ("I") is being replaced by the object pronoun ("me"). It seems to be that when you begin the subject with an adjective ("Stupid me") there's an implication that you're answering the question of who the adjective refers to. Who is stupid? Me. In this case, it makes more sense as an object pronoun.

I can't think of a precise set of rules for this situation, but this appears to be what I'm doing when I intuitively speak those sentences.

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I think actually the more likely explanation is that the object pronoun me is not being replaced by the subject pronoun I in a case where you might otherwise expect it to. –  nohat Aug 27 '10 at 22:17
    
This doesn't quite cut it (though the downvote is not mine). True, the question "Who is stupid?" can be answered as "it's me" or "it's him", but it can just as well be answered as "I am" or "he is". I also second @nohat's comment. –  RegDwigнt Aug 28 '10 at 22:45
    
@nohat That's a much better way of putting it than what I said. Thanks for the clarification. –  Warrior Bob Sep 2 '10 at 18:17
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As for an etymology, I don't know where or when the origination of this slang construction came from. However, it appears that the construction is a subordinate declarative object clause. Rather than being formal and saying he is lucky (which would be nominative case), it's reduced to lucky him due to the verb's removal.

To isolate the clause though, Think about it in conversational context:

I got pulled over.
Lucky you.

Further reduced, take your question a step further with adding to the above conversation Again. Neither of the last two are actual sentences obviously, but poetically and conversationally they work.

It seems like in all of the examples though the noun of the clause is an object, a reference rather than an active subject of a predicate.

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(this reply is meant to spur research, not as an authoritative answer. Sorry if this seems more like noise, but this may not really be a question that can have an answer.) –  mfg Aug 27 '10 at 20:39
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Why do we use the object instead of the subject pronoun in constructions like “stupid me”?

Because "Stupid Me" is just a consolidation of "That/It was stupid of me"

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"Isn't" replaced with "Because..." - hopefully will now be read as an answer, not a question. –  Andrew Oct 28 '12 at 6:33
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