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Thanks to Ben Kovitz who, in Q: "gerund + genitive" vs "gerund+accusative" ("scribendo epistulas" vs "scribendo epistularum"), pointed out Cicero's referring to himself in the first-person plural, in the following:

"...[ ]...ut stante re publica facere "solebamus", in agendo plus quam in scribendo operae "poneremus"...[ ]...sed actiones nostras "mandaremus", ut saepe "fecimus";

which is well-translated in Ben's answer.

Here, in contemporary society, only The Queen refers to herself as "We"; it is a part of Her status, as The Queen.

Decades ago the then Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher said: "We have become a grandmother.". It triggered waves of mockery, ridicule and just laughter. If any Englishman/ Brit referred to themselves as "we" people, at the very least, would look askance, laugh; or, a sarcastic--who do you think you are--the word "idiot" (or worse) either implied by vocal-tone or stated.

Clearly, Cicero was living in a different time/ place and was highly respected (as was Thatcher--even by those who despised her) but "we"--why would Cicero have done this; what effect would it have had upon his audience?

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    In mathematical English one has to refer to oneself as "we". In a single-authored article I would write "we prove our theorem as follows"; using "I" and "my" would be considered arrogant. But this is a peculiarity of mathematical language and it is not confined to English.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 24 at 14:46
  • @Joonas llmavirta: In such circumstances isn't it customary to say "It has been proved that..."? In a single-author thing it is clear that you are the one who has done the proving. I don't recall seeing "we" in a research paper unless it was referring to "we"--the research team. Of course this is implied--potentially diluting your own credit, as a single-author.
    – tony
    Apr 24 at 15:10
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    No, in mathematics it pretty much has to be "we have proven that" in the active voice with the first person plural. Other disciplines are probably different, but in mathematics that is the standard, no matter how many authors there are.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 24 at 15:38
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    (I don't remember highly respecting her.) Apr 25 at 12:30
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This isn't the royal "we", but is closest to what today is called plūrālis modestiae is Latin, the author's "we" in English. As Joonas mentions in the comments, this is an established feature of pan-European scientific style, and no surprise - it's got there from Latin, but in the process got reinterpreted in tone and style (just as happens with all Latin borrowings - no matter how mundane, quicquid Latīnē dictum sit, altum vidētur).

In Classical Latin it's less specialised and less diversified, and can just as well be described as "rhetorical plural" and "sociative plural". As I understand it, it expresses some combination of diminution of the I-ness, the ego, and an implication that one represents and has in mind the interests of more than just themselves - in short, one is paterfamiliās. In many cases where you find it, using the singular, especially the pronoun, would indicate a more informal, conversational tone, or even a certain lack of tact.

The Queen/Prime Minister use you mention is indeed the royal "we", the plūrālis maijestātis, and probably arose from the former use starting in the 3d c. CE, becoming common in the 5th century. It must have been tied to the rise of the deferential plural address, first vōs and prīncipēs, and eventually excesses like vestra maijestās, glōria, pietās known to everybody from post-Renaissance calques in modern European languages. It may also reflect extending the notion of paterfamiliās to pater patriae, a title habitually bestowed on emperors starting even earlier.

Pinkster 2015: 1119 for a basic reference and examples.

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  • Thank you. Alternatively could it be a collegiate/ fellowship thing--(we) the group; (we) the clique; (we ) those (of us) who agree on most things/ support the same causes?
    – tony
    Apr 25 at 11:29
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    The Prime Ministerial use, a la Thatcher, is virtually never used in the UK, hence the derision with which Thatcher's remark was received. Apart from the fact that her husband, if she was speaking for both, was not a grandmother!
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 25 at 14:55
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    @tony I believe that would make it the primary meaning of "we" present in all languages, with multiple reference. The use in question is specifically single-reference: I and I alone need to write less letters and get more involved with current affairs. Although watching a Boris Johnson address, it does occur to me that while "thanks to your efforts we've prevented..." would be fine in Russian as unambiguously involving the addressee, but "we believe we may be able to begin opening schools..." where "we" means "us the government" does seem to have a "I'm more than just a man" overtone to it. Apr 25 at 18:46

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