Jeffrey Kluger, “The Problem with the ‘We Are All…’ Trope” (Time Opinion, Oct. 22, 2012)
“The earliest example I’ve seen for the trope is Thomas Jefferson’s ‘We are all republicans, we are all federalists,’ in his first inaugural address,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the site Vocabulary.com. Jefferson’s coinage didn’t return in the language records until Sir William Harcourt, a British Liberal leader, declared in 1888, “We are all socialists now.” That, in turn, prompted a generations-later rejoinder from economist Milton Friedman, who in 1965 answered, “We are all Keynesians now.”
But it took John Kennedy to grab the We are all device, flip it to the first person singular, translate it into German and mainline it straight into the linguistic bloodstream, with his celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, delivered at the then-new Berlin wall. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” Kennedy declared. “And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” As Zimmer notes, ”The recent declarations of transnational empathy — we are all New Yorkers or Americans or Danes now — seem much more evocative of Kennedy.”
It’s a measure of the pandemically infectious nature of language tropes that you can’t even discuss one without invoking others. Among linguists, Zimmer says, We are all is considered a subcategory of what’s known as a “snowclone,” a language template that gets riffed-on and repurposed over and over again.