Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Stephen Frug Muses Upon Illeism

From the department of phenomena-you-didn't-know- there-was-a-word-for, we have today's vocabulary word (stumbled upon here): Illeism: "the act of referring to oneself in the third person" (from the Latin ille, that). One who practices illeism is an illeist.

Language log has a quick tour of the subject here, complete with a Zippy the Pinhead cartoon about (apparently well-known illeist) Salvador Dali, and the Wikipedia article has a charming list of examples. These include a fair number of politicians -- most famously (in recent US politics) Bob Dole, but apparently dating back to Julius Caesar -- a fair number of sports stars and similar celebrities, and an impressive list of fictional characters. The latter category includes Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Elmo from Sesame Street, Marvel Comics's Hulk and Doctor Doom, The Wire's Omar, Cerebus the Aardvark, The Dude from The Big Lebowski, Gollum, several Simpsons characters (such as Groundskeeper Willie), and (apparently) Tarzan.

Technically, illeism is any reference to oneself in the third person, such as the blogger writing this sentence is doing in it, but the most notable sort of illeism is when one refers to oneself by name. Language Log calls this proper-name illeism, and breaks it down into binomial* ("Bob Dole isn't a fringe candidate"), last name only ("You don't have Nixon to kick around any more") and first name only ("Omar don't scare.") This doesn't include people (and other creatures) known only by one name (Cerebus, Gollum, Hulk) nor by a nickname (The Dude), and I don't know where to categorize "Groundskeeper Willie".

I'm curious about the meaning of this device -- in particular, what it says about fictional characters when they do this. (I don't know if anyone's written about this, although this article discusses Shakespeare's use of proper-name illeism (called in the article "illeism with a difference") in several of his plays.) Is it simply a distinctive verbal tick? Perhaps, but I think it's more specific than that. The device often suggests grandiosity -- often a humorous grandiosity, but not always: I don't think Omar's use comes across as in any way risible. In many cases it presumes a fame on the part of the illeist (e.g. Ceasar, Doctor Doom, and in his own world Omar), but again not always -- not with The Dude, for instance, nor Gollum. But it does seem like importance -- whether genuine fame or ludicrous grandiosity -- is often tied up with it.

It occurs to me that some current technology forces a certain illeism on its users: think of facebook status updates, for instance, where the proper name is automatically attached, which, since the content is self-generated, leads to an illeistic situation even if the author doesn't intend it. (I wonder if this will lead to the device's changing rhetorical force, since it will sound more common and less forced? Or are these in a distinctive enough category that the cultural meaning won't bleed out into the other cases?)

Stephen Frug would be interested in any thoughts his Noble Readers have on the meaning conveyed by proper-name illeism -- in any context, but particularly in fictive ones. Comments are open...

* The post also has some discussion of both third person binomialism and second person binomialism, as well as the first-person binomialism varient of illeism. Incidentally, "binomialism" seems to be a word invented in that language log post, not a standard term.

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