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We, Meaning You, Meaning Me

Shortly after I retired, my wife and I were relaxing in the living room, sipping our Friday night martinis, when she made a suggestion: “Now that you’re retired,” she said, “we should dig in and do all the things we’ve been postponing because you were so busy at your office.”

I agreed. There was a backlog. Also, my wife had been doing a lot of the harder stuff I should have been handling. It would be good to work together around the house. However, it soon became evident that when she employed the pronoun we, she no longer meant what the dictionary says it means: I and the rest of the group that includes me: you and I: you and I and another or others – used as a pronoun in the first person plural.

Me and my wife, Dorothy

Me and my wife, Dorothy

Now when she said we, she didn’t mean we, she meant you, meaning me. Mostly she used it in connection with labor-intensive activities such as, “We need to climb up on the ladder and fasten that gutter where it’s been dangling for 30 years.” Given that the highest my wife has ever been on a ladder is the lowest rung on the kitchen step stool, it’s obvious she didn’t mean we.

Then there was, “We need to mow the lawn, clean the sidewalk, prune the camellias, and take out that old stump before the girls come for bridge tomorrow. And the leaves on the driveway are up to your neck.”

She used we to ease the pain. To make me feel more comfortable. There’s a task to do. We’ll do it together. You and me. Jointly.

(In theory):

WIFE: “It’s such a beautiful day! We should clean out the garage.”

ME: “We”?

WIFE: “I have to shop for groceries. Is there something you would rather do?”

ME: “In this whole, wide world?”

I think this use of the pronoun we came from teaching. Many years ago, my wife was a substitute kindergarten teacher. I suspect she used we to manage little tots: “Now Tommy, we are not going to go around banging little girls over their heads with our lunch pail anymore, are we?” Using we absorbed the shock.

She wouldn’t say, “Don’t forget to empty the garbage.” Instead, She’d say, “I believe we need to empty the garbage,” indicating we’re both in on this, even though you perform all of the actual activity. And it was something that must be done for the welfare of all – a contribution to society – an opportunity to delicately pick up a garbage pail full of disgusting kitchen byproducts and thrown them in the garbage can.

But there were times when “we” does mean a collective venture and we’re definitely in it together: “Irene called about our Club’s Pancake Breakfast Saturday. They need someone to cook from six o’clock ’till noon. I told them we would be glad to do it.” Or: “I’m putting on weight. We’re going to have to go on a diet.” Instead of “we” the pronouns “anybody” and “somebody” are occasionally used to indicate me, as in: “I don’t think anybody has mowed the lawn for the past two weeks.” And: “I’m freezing. I wish somebody would jump out of bed and turn up the furnace.”

Thereupon, “somebody” pretends to be asleep.