I sometimes hear people using us, we etc. when talking to young children in order to refer to the child: e.g "Let's get our socks on"; "Aren't we a clever boy". For how long have people done this? Is this as common as I think it is? And does it occur in other languages?

As a point of possible interest I might add that in Antony & Cleopatra (about 1607), when Cleopatra is helping to lift up the dying Antony on to her monument, she uses we/our in a way that might be interpreted as resembling this usage:

[...] but come, come Anthony,
Helpe me my women, we must draw thee up:
Assist good Friends.

Oh quicke, or I am gone.

Heere's sport indeede: How heauy weighes my Lord?
Our strength is all gone into heauinesse,
That makes the waight.

Of course this could just as easily refer to both of them, although it seems to have some relation to the 'hedging' described in Edwin Ashworth's comment.

  • 1
    It's certainly 55 years old. This perverse usage (1st person plural substituting for second person) is a pragmatic device, a hedge against sounding too confrontational ('Get yer socks on!') or patronising ('You're clever!'). The let's and rhetorical question constructions are additional hedging devices here. Aug 3, 2014 at 15:33
  • It's not just used with children. Another common context is a nurse asking a patient "How are we doing today?" I think the intent in this case is to express that the the nurse considers the patient's problems to be her problems as well.
    – Barmar
    Aug 4, 2014 at 20:44
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    It is indeed used in other languages. For instance, Japanese uses it quite a bit (not the pronoun itself, but the inclusive exhortative mode). E.g. the title of this page translates to "Let's use electrical appliances correctly." It is very often said to children, and also very commonly found on a variety of signs.
    – Amadan
    Aug 5, 2014 at 7:05

1 Answer 1


The starting point for investigation farther into the past would surely be the publication dates of two classic children's books by A. A. Milne: When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927). The "We" in the first title could arguably be interpreted as referring to the author in Queen Victoria mode, recalling his own childhood, although the fact that all of the main animal characters in the books are named after toys that Milne's son Christopher Robin Milne had as a child, that's a bit of a stretch. But the second title adopts a present-tense verb, and there can be no doubt that the person being referred to as "We" is the character Christopher Robin.

I did some additional research in a series of Google Books searches and turned up several early instances of what I (rather harshly) call "the infantilizing we." The earliest of them (so far) is from The Publishers' Circular and Booksellers' Record (1910) [combined snippets]:

The health of the Book Trade is the health of every man in this room this evening. Gentlemen, as your fashionable medical attendant says, " How are we feeling tonight ? " (Laughter.) Pretty well, I hope. And I am sure we are all " delighted to hear it." (Laughter.)

So if you thought that the first use would probably turn out to involve a condescending adult speaking to a child, a condescending waiter talking to a diner, or a condescending medical staffer talking to a patient, you aren't wrong yet.

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