October 18, 2007

You're not the boss of me

Geoff Pullum recently noted an odd turn of phrase used by British prime minister Gordon Brown in acknowledging his decision not to call an early election: "Anything that happens in Downing Street is the direct responsibility of me." Geoff writes:

What makes "of me" so unusual is that there is a monosyllabic genitive form of the first person singular pronoun, namely my, so normally people will say "my responsibility" or "my spouse" rather than "the responsibility of me" or "the spouse of me". Perhaps it was a planning screw-up: he first embarked on "Anything that happens in Downing Street is the direct responsibility of the prime minister" and then decided on a mid-course correction from "the prime minister" — the third-person reference to himself might have sounded pompous — and changed the last noun phrase to "me". What he ended up with sounded strangely inept.

Inept or infantile? Several helpful readers pointed out the popularity of the phrase "the boss of me," as in the song by They Might Be Giants, "Boss of Me," used as the theme song for the FOX TV show "Malcolm in the Middle" from 2000 to 2006. "You're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big," goes the chorus, seemingly from the perspective of a petulant child addressing a parent or older sibling. (Songwriter John Flansburgh has said it's about his older brother.) Though the phrase "you're not the boss of me" may owe some of its current popularity to the TMBG song, this bit of rebellious kid-speak has been kicking around since the late 19th century.

When I checked up on this a few years ago for the American Dialect Society mailing list, I was able to trace "you're not the boss of me" back to 1953 using then-available digitized newspaper databases. Now, thanks to the wonders of Google Book Search, it's easy to take it back another 70 years:

His sister was going to put her arms around him, but he whirled, and facing her with a very angry face, snapped — "Let me alone; you are not the boss of me now, I tell you, and I'm going to do as I please."
—"As by Fire," The Church, New Series Vol. III, 1883, p. 70

Though this is from a long-ago children's story, the context of a boy bristling at the control of his older sister is strikingly familiar. ("I've been babied till I'm tired of it," complains the brother. "I can take care of myself now, and I don't need any of your bossin'.") The next example I see on Google Book Search is from 1949, in Millie Tool's novel Resurrection Road. The book is unfortunately only in snippet view, but here too the expression appears to be used in the context of inter-sibling squabbling (between brother Astor and sister Star):

"You're too cheeky," said Astor, sticking out his tongue. "You're not the boss of me."
—Millie Tool, Resurrection Road, 1949, p. 63.

The 1953 quote I had found earlier is notable in that it appears in article about childhood behavior, suggesting that experts in the field already considered "you're not the boss of me" to be a well-known reaction of recalcitrant children:

Put off that visit to grandma, or hers to you, till the peak of this "Try and make me — you're not the boss of me" stage is past.
—"Child Behavior: Better to Ward Off That Crisis. The Gesell Institute." Washington Post, Jul 1, 1953, p. 30

From the 1960s onwards, "you're not the boss of me" seems to have an increasing pop-cultural presence, as in the comic strip I've reproduced in the top right ("The Ryatts," Appleton [Wisc.] Post Crescent, May 4, 1966). But it didn't really take off as a catchphrase until the late '90s. Predating They Might Be Giants by two years, a band called The Meat Joy released the song "Free Kitten" in 1998, with the chorus, "You're not the boss of me." And in a 1999 interview with Barbara Walters, Monica Lewinsky explained that she's always been stubborn: "From the time I was 2 years old, one of my first phrases was, with my hands on my hips, 'You're not the boss of me!'"

Though "you're not..." is the most common frame for "(the) boss of me," it has also shown up in other formulations. For instance, the Galveston Daily News of Sep. 30, 1910 quotes Senator Joseph W. Bailey as saying, "I am not the boss of any man, but no man is boss of me." There the rhetorical use of "boss of me" is easily understood as contrastive, highlighting a chiastic reversal. (I'm reminded of the Qur'anic invocation, lam yalid wa lam yulad, "He begets not, nor is He begotten.")

A more childlike example comes from "Tiger" by the Canadian poet Isabel Ecclestone Mackay (1875-1928), in a posthumous collection of verse published in 1930 (via Literature Online):

There is a TIGER in our hall—
He lies so flat and still
He never seems to move at all,
But, some time, p'r'aps he will!
Some day, when I am grown up tall,
I'll step on him!—you'll see,
I'll teach that Tiger in our hall
He's not the boss of me!

Finally, there's the formulation "I'm the boss of me," attested since the 1950s at least. In these two citations it is discussed as an emblematic assertion of a child's independence:

As a child once reported, "I am the boss of me." Obviously this is the culmination of the development of the ego trait of autonomy.
— Joseph Salomon, A Synthesis of Human Behavior, 1954, p. 42.

"I'm the boss of me." Wherever they pick it up, youngsters from tots to teens make the statement importantly and cling to it. Upon its earliest utterance, watchful, loving non-permissive parents will reply that that's the way it should be — as long as the child is a good boss of him. If he is not, then someone else has to take over.
—"Why Behave?" Lima (Ohio) News, Nov. 8, 1967, p. 35

More recently, both "you're not the boss of me" and "I'm the boss of me" were featured in the 1997 film Boogie Nights. Mark Wahlberg plays the porn star Dirk Diggler, who gives himself a memorable pep talk in the mirror, imagining that he's telling off his svengali Jack Horner (played by Burt Reynolds):

You're not the boss of me, Jack. You're not the king of Dirk. I'm the boss of me. I'm the king of me. I'm Dirk Diggler. I'm the star.

In all of the above cases, "the boss of me" provides much greater emphasis (albeit in a puerile manner) than the unmarked possessive construction, "my boss." Perhaps Gordon Brown was looking for a similar way to emphasize his personal role by referring to "the direct responsibility of me." But it probably does no good for a prime minister to sound like a five-year-old having a tantrum.

(For more discussion of recent "boss of me" usage, from Dirk Diggler to Monica Lewinsky to "Malcolm in the Middle," see the two posts by linguist Neal Whitman guest-blogging in 2004 on The Volokh Conspiracy.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 18, 2007 02:09 PM