July 29, 2007

Illeism and its relatives

Zippy confronts Salvador Dali (at the museum Dali built in Figueres, Spain, his birthplace), and picks up Dali's habit of referring to himself in the third person -- what's sometimes called illeism (Wikipedia site here, with lots of examples):

Back in late May and early June, the American Dialect Society mulled over various oddities in the way names are used in referring to people.  We started with what I'll call binomialism -- uses of FN+LN (first name plus last name) in such references -- for third persons, and then quickly moved on to 2nd-person binomialism, and then to 1st-person binomialism and to illeism in general.  Here's a tour through that discussion.

[Note added 7/31/07: What follows is JUST a tour through the ADS-L discussion; it's not intended as a full inventory of illeisms and related phenomena.  The Wikipedia site has lots and lots of illeism examples, from Julius Caesar on, and that would be the place to check for cases not mentioned below and the place to add your favorites.]

It started (5/26/07) with a posting of mine on 3rd-person binomialism:

I've been sort-of-watching a long Biography episode about Johnny Depp.  One of his biographers provides a great many comments about Depp and his work -- always referring to him as "Johnny Depp", never "Johnny" or "Depp".  (Almost everyone else uses "Johnny" all the time, though the narrator seems to use FN + LN at the beginning of a new segment of the show and in summary statements.)  Very awkward effect, as though the guy was introducing Depp into the discourse again and again.

Larry Horn followed up by noting Hemingway's references to his character Robert Jordan as "Robert Jordan" in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Jon Lighter added another literary example: Tim O'Brien "constantly refers to the protagonist of Going After Cacciato (1978; rpt. N.Y.: Dell, 1979) as 'Paul Berlin'":

He... handed the glasses to Paul Berlin... Paul Berlin watched through the glasses... Paul Berlin watched through the glasses [a second time]... And the arms kept flapping... Paul Berlin suddenly realized... Paul Berlin could not hear... So Paul Berlin repeated it.  (pp. 25-6)

"These are all in the space of about 700 words and appear to be representative.  O'Brien is less systematic in The Things They Carried, but frequently uses FN+LN for characters in places where it feels like an affectation."

Lighter then made the transition from 3rd-person to 2nd-person binomialism by citing uses of "Charlie Brown" in Charles Schulz's cartoons, where both sorts of binomialism abound.  For the 2nd-person use, note the title of Clark Gesner's musical based on the cartoon: You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Doug Harris pursued the 2nd-person theme:

Alan Chartok, the main man (president, political commentator, overall overseer but not CBW) at WAMC Public Radio in Albany NY does the same thing on most of his half-hour one-on-ones with politicos. It is very awkward-sounding, as if he doesn't know whether to be familiar and call them by their first name or address them more formally...

and I explored it a bit further:

As Doug points out, the second-person case presents a social difficulty, since all of the alternatives (FN, LN, FN+LN, Prefix+LN, etc.) convey something about the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee -- so it actually makes sense for the interviewer to avoid address forms entirely.  And indeed that's what most of them do; check out Terry Gross on Fresh Air, for example.

The exceptions are (a) cases where the interviewer and interviewee are acquaintances or friends, in which case both are likely to use FN; (b) cases in which the interviewer wants to project intimacy with the interviewee (think sports interviewers and Charlie Rose), via FN; (c) cases in which the interviewer wants to express deference, usually via Prefix+LN ("Professor Chomsky").

If the interviewer avoids address forms, then for the sake of the listener, the interviewee can be periodically identified by third-person reference ("I'm talking with FN+LN", "We'll return to this interview with FN+LN in a moment").  On TV, of course, identifying information can be displayed on the screen (although this information is usually on the screen for only a little while, and usually isn't repeated when the interviewee returns after other material intervenes, unless it's been some time since the interviewee's last appearance).

As Jim Stalker pointed out, on the radio, address avoidance can make it hard for listeners to figure out who they're hearing.  This is especially troublesome for me, since I collect a fair number of examples from radio interviews; often, I catch the words first time they go past, but then have to go back and listen to the recording on the program site to figure out who the speaker was.

In the case of third-person reference, avoidance of names (via pronouns) is often not available, but the choices are less socially fraught: LN is merely non-intimate (while Prefix+LN is "polite", sometimes deferential).

Having gone through the 3rd-person and 2nd-person cases, we then moved to the 1st-person case, binomial illeism.  I remarked that Bob Dole was famous for referring to himself as "Bob Dole".  Ben Zimmer added:

And was mercilessly spoofed by Norm MacDonald on "Saturday Night Live" in 1996 for doing so, e.g.:

Bob Dole: Bob Dole likes peanut butter. Bob Dole's never made a secret of that.  (3/16/96, "Real World" sketch)

After all the ridicule, Dole hired a speech coach to force himself to use 1st-person reference.  On 10/15/96 USA Today reported:

He has already largely rid his standard campaign speech of the verbal tic that's prompted the most jokes about his style: third-person references to himself as 'Bob Dole.' Friday in Dewey Beach, Del., the Kansas senator referred to himself as 'Bob Dole' only once and used the pronoun 'I' 59 times."

And after the election he came on "SNL" to poke fun at himself (11/16/96):

Norm MacDonald: Aw, come on now, Senator, it's a great impression.  Listen to this: [speaking in his Bob Dole voice] "Come November 5th, a lot of people are going to be surprised by Bob Dole, because Bob Dole's gonna win this election!"

Bob Dole: [shaking head] Doesn't sound a thing like me. First of all, I don't run around saying "Bob Dole does this" and "Bob Dole does that." That's not something Bob Dole does. It's not something Bob Dole has ever done, and it's not something Bob Dole will ever do!

From there we went on to LN illeism, most famously

You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Charlie Doyle noted that this is what the Yale Book of Quotations has, and what the major newspaprs reported in 1962,

But the "Dick" is frequently inserted into oral quotings and paraphrasings (as well as later writings and reminiscences)--BECAUSE OF Nixon's tendency to refer to himself as "Dick Nixon" (as well as just "Nixon")...

Larry Horn provided a rich background:

... I did this same search several years ago, when I was working on a paper touching on what I called the "Dissociative Third Person", or "Bobdolisms" for short.  (The version I gave at the 2002 LSA was called "1,3: Indexicality, reference, and the asymmetries of binding".)  Dole's political mentor was, of course, Nixon, so I ended up tracking down and finding on the internet a sound bite of the relevant Nixon speech (from after his loss to Pat Brown).  Sure enough, it's Dickless, but like Charlie I had the same sense that we remember it [as "Dick Nixon"] because in general the form of the name appearing in the Bobdolism is the one by which the celebrity is usually known (hence Bob Dole, not Robert).

Most of my examples [see below] came from athletes' using this "third person" for themselves (almost always in the form of proper names, though, not "he", "him", or "his", which makes "illeism" a less than ideal term), following the lead of Bo Jackson, who was the athletes' Nixon/Dole of the third person.  But here's one not involving a politician or athlete, just a self-styled celebrity contractor; note the reference to the "Nixonian third person".

[48]  Chris Clark, a Manhattan contractor, slipped into the Nixonian third person as he described his rational for rejecting homeowners without designers:  "Chris Clark can't sit down at the kitchen table with Mrs. Jones, who wants white cabinets, a granite counter and Miele dishwasher.  The room for dispute is too vast. Do you know how many white Formicas there are?"
(NYT 15 July 1999, F10, "Courting the Contractor")

And here's the actual Nixon quote, direct from the audio.

[49]  Just think how much you're gonna be missing.  You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.   (Richard Nixon, concession speech after losing California gubernatorial election to Pat Brown, 7 Nov. 1962; usually recalled as "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore")

Some cases of the athlete's dissociative third person:

[34]    What's wrong with [Larry] Johnson? Nothing, he insists.  "People know what L.J. can do," he said.  "I know what L.J. can do."
(basketball player Larry Johnson on his offensive struggles, NYT 22 Nov. 1996, B11)

[35]    Can they [the New Jersey Nets] re-sign Cassell?  "I have to see what's right for Sam Cassell," said Cassell, who wants a salary around $5 million.  "Money is going to be the key."
(basketball player Sam Cassell on his salary dispute with the Nets, NYT 22 April 1997)

[36]    Establishing a balance between being the world's greatest basketball player as well as a purveyor of cologne, footwear, briefs, and motion pictures has been a chore at times.  "As you look at my career, those things haven't defined Michael Jordan, he said.  "Michael Jordan's basketball skills defined him."
(M.J. on the difficulties of being M.J., NYT 9 Sept. 1997)

[37]     "I just want to win.  The bottom line is whatever Todd Hundley has do to help this team win, I'll do."
(Catcher Todd Hundley's travails in learning to be an outfielder, NYT 13 July 1998)

[38]a.   "I gave Pittsburgh every opportunity to sign Neil O'Donnell", O'Donnell said.
(Chicago Sun-Times 1 Mar. 1996, p. 110)

b.  O'Donnell, who was benched in the fourth quarter with the Jets leading, admitted:  "It's a hard thing.  I'm just doing what Neil O'Donnell can do.
(NYT 3 Nov. 1997, on travails of N. Y. Jets quarterback Neil O'Donnell)

[39]  "I'm just going to do the things Derek Harper has done for 10 years, and hopefully that will be enough."
(NYT 8 Jan. 1994, p. 32)

[40]  "I just want to go to a place where Howard Johnson is going to put up some big numbers."
(Nov. 1993 radio interview with baseball player on signing with Colorado Rockies)

[41]   I feel I'm just out there doing the sort of things Lenny Harris can do.
(baseball player Lenny Harris in radio interview on WFAN 29 July 2000)

[42]  He said he'd take of me, and it hasn't happened yet.  I want to be there, but I've got to look out for Tim Hardaway and Tim Hardaway's family.
(basketball player Tim Hardaway, complaining of his treatment by coach Pat Riley, NYT 29 Aug. 2000, D2)

and from Bob Dole's own mouth:

[43]  [Responding to Ted Koppel's query about whether he intended to stress the character issue in the campaign]  "I don't think so," Dole said.  "My view is that I'm going to talk about Bob Dole, and I've been doing a little of that."
(ABC "Nightline" show, March 1996)

[44]  I am very proud to be from Russell, Kansas, population fifty-five hundred.  My dad went to work every day for forty-two years and pround of it, and my mother sold Singer sewing machines...to try to make ends meet.  Six of us grew up living in a basement apartment.  That was Bob Dole's early life, and I'm proud of it, because we learned a lot about values, about honesty and decency and responsibility and integrity and self-reliance and loving your God, your family, your church, and your community..."
(Dole speech in Columbus, Ohio, 3/14/96)

Crucially, the name shows up when the celeb is viewing himself (I have no examples from women) from the outside, so we would never hear Dole saying "That was my early life, and Bob Dole is proud of it", or "Bob Dole is going to talk about me", or pausing in the middle of a speech to murmur "Bob Dole needs to pause a moment to {take a sip of water/visit the rest room}".  (Except maybe on the Saturday Night Live parodies of him that were popular during the 1996 presidential campaign.)  Finally, here's NYT sports media reporter Richard Sandomir during the '96 campaign on this "affliction":

Some strange, grammatical, mind-body affliction is making some well-known folks in sports and politics refer to themselves in the third person. It is as if they have stepped outside their bodies. Is this detachment? Modesty? Schizophrenia? If this loopy verbal quirk were simple egomania, then Louis XIV [sic] might have said, "L'etat, c'est Lou."

Third Personspeak's greatest sports champion is Bo Jackson, the former football-baseball star. Bo knew Bo intimately, but he had a more distant relationship with "I."  Bo quoted Bo so frequently that Bo needed another Bo to speak for Bo. "The key was Bo wants to play baseball," Bo once said. "I want to see what Bo wants to do. Let me state a fact: Bo Jackson can play baseball."
(--Richard Sandomir, N. Y. Times Week in Review 10 Mar. 1996, p. 2)

"Bo" here is a FN illeism.  Jon Lighter turned to popular culture for another FN illeism:

Back in the '50s there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon involving Arab anti-rabbit terrorists from the 1001 Nights. Hassan carried a scimitar that he would swing at Bugs while crying, "Hassan CHOP!"

and Ben Zimmer added a FN+LN musical case:

A more influential appearance of the dissociative third-person in '50s pop culture was the song "Bo Diddley" by Bo Diddley (June 1955, Checker):

Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring,
If that diamond ring don't shine,
He gonna take it to a private eye,
If that private eye can't see
He'd better not take the ring from me.

This was followed up by other third-person songs such as "Diddley Daddy," "Hey, Bo Diddley," and "Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger." And to bring things full circle, Bo Diddley appeared with Bo Jackson in Nike's "Bo Knows" commercials of 1989-90 ("Bo, you don't know diddley!").  (link)

But Lighter objected that

the Diddley usage was not so flagrantly illeistic. There's Diddley, then there's the unnamed narrator of the song, then there's" Diddley," a possibly fictitious character in the song.

Meanwhile, Zimmer went back a year in the blues:

... a year before that was "Don't You Know" by Ray Charles (July 1954, Atlantic):

Say, have you heard baby,
Ray Charles is in town.
Let's mess around till the midnight hour,
See what he's puttin down.

Presumably there are other musical examples stretching way back in time.

Two more recent examples: Charlie Doyle recalled that

Some comedy show on TV has a running gag in which a Karl Malone impersonator is featured saying foolish things in Dissociative Athletic BoSpeak.

and Michael Covarrubias identified the show:

I believe that's Jimmy Kimmel playing the recurring character on The Man Show.

And of course there's the often mimicked self-referencing declaration from Seinfeld, "George is getting upset!" George uttered the line (and other similar lines) several times on various episodes. The habit was introduced on the show by the character "Jimmy" (introduced in the locker room after a basketball game) who pushed the style to terrible limits: "Hey, look. Hank's got a new boyfriend. Jimmy's not threatened by Hank's sexuality. Jimmy's happy for Hank." -- "Hands off Jimmy! Don't touch Jimmy!" (episode 105; 16 March 1995).

To sum up: 3rd-person binomialism, 2nd-person binomialism, and proper-name illeism of all three types: binomial ("Bob Dole"), LN ("Dali" and "Nixon"), and FN ("Zippy" and "Bo").

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 29, 2007 01:17 PM