What is the meaning of "thou thee" from the quotation below referenced in this Quora answer? (Attributed to the attorney-general at Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial.)

All that he did was at thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou traitor.

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    The source to which you link also has a complete explanation. Put the quotation in a Google search box to find it. quora.com/For-I-thou-thee-thou-traitor-what-does-this-mean
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 2:27
  • 1
    @Xanne It is a different page of the same domain, but yes it does, thanks. Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 2:35
  • The answer given--that thou is being used as a verb--is right on. And we may move right on, whether this is closed or not.
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 7:39
  • @Fattie - Because the OP didn't read the reference he used.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 23:05
  • @Fattie - If you think it's bad here you should see Skeptics.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 0:15

2 Answers 2


In "I thou thee", "thou" is a verb. The relevant definition in the OED is:

trans. To address (a person) with the pronoun thou (or its equivalent in another language).

(The quote in your question is one of the examples listed for this sense, in fact.)

It's really the same pattern as "Don't 'honey' me!" which you may have actually heard in real life.

To understand the reason this was an insult, one must be aware that "thou" at this time was a familiar pronoun of the second person singular while "you", the plural, had come to be used in the singular for people owed a certain measure of respect. (Compare French "tu" and "vous", if you're familiar with French.) Therefore, to "thou" someone whose relationship to the speaker would ordinarily call for the use of "you" was a show of grave disrespect.

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    For more background, see T-V distinction.
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 20:48
  • @Mark - all these years, I had no idea of the term for that. Thanks! T–V distinction.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 23:09
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    A brief note: "thou" was not just used for close/intimate/familiar acquaintances, it was also used for someone in a subordinate position (e.g. a servant, a lower class of noble, etc). It's literally a way of saying "you are beneath me/inferior to me". Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 1:24

The comparison with French has been made:

(thou) Tu es une vipère. En effet je te tutoie, tu es un traître!

(you) Vous êtes une vipère. En effet je vous vouvoie, vous êtes un traître!

But you may also compare with German:

(thou) Du Schlange! Ich duze dich, du Verräter!

(you) Sie Schlange! Ich sieze Sie, Sie Verräter!

The cool thing with French and German is that you can explicitly see that they actually have a verb for saying "thou" as opposed to "you".

The verb for "thou" ("tu" in French, "du" in German): "tutoyer" in French and "duzen" in German.

The verb for "you" ("vous" in French, "Sie" in German): "vouvoyer" in French and "siezen" in German.

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    Use citations in answers, if you please. And OP seeks meaning in English.
    – lbf
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 14:38
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    @lbf - I think this is a useful answer here -- the French and German phrases are translations of the sentence which involves a concept that is not readily expressible in modern English but which is still commonplace in those languages, so for anyone who is familiar with either of them it is probably the best way of understanding it.
    – Jules
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 15:53
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    The French sentence should read je te tutoie, not je vous tutoie.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 23:02
  • @jlliagre +1 And similarly the German should be "Ich sage dir du...". Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 2:31
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    I think German also has a verb, "duzen", for "saying 'du' to"; so the example could be "Ich duze dich ...". Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 2:34

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