November 23, 2005

Further adventures in "self" expression

I've received a number of interesting responses to my recent post on the expression, (So) I say(s) to myself, "Self...", which has still only been documented since the 1980s, surprisingly enough. [*] Many readers are convinced that they've heard it used in old movies or comedy routines. It does have the feel of a well-worn vaudeville line, something that might have been introduced to film or radio audiences by a former vaudevillian like Jimmy Durante, William Demarest, or Red Skelton. But if an old-time comic actually used the line, I've found no record of it in the various online databases. (One might expect it to turn up on a database like ProQuest Historical Newspapers, which covers the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and several other major papers. Surely some entertainment columnist would have alluded to it somewhere along the line.)

One tipster suggests that Bill Cosby used So I said to myself, "Self..." in a standup routine captured on one of his celebrated live albums from the 1960s. This matches the recollection of a few others:

Years ago Bill Cosby had a comedy routine which portrayed self-talk very humorously with the line, "So, I said to myself, 'Self'. . ."
—"The Good Side of Talking to Yourself" by Donna R. Vocate, Boston University College of Communication

I like that Bill Cosby record, you remember that? Where he [says], "I said to myself, 'Self.'"
—"The Cross Pt. 2" by Pastor Star R. Scott, Sword of the Spirit Ministries

I've had the opportunity to listen to several of Cosby's albums from the '60s, and I have yet to come across an instance of this exact expression. So far, the closest approximation I've found appears on the 1966 album Wonderfulness, in a routine called "Niagara Falls." In it, Cosby impersonates the producer/director Sheldon Leonard (who cast Cosby in his breakout role on the television series "I Spy"). Cosby delights in imitating Leonard's vocal mannerisms through a story about a young Leonard taking his wife on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls. Cosby mimics Leonard recalling:

So I said to my bride, "Bride... why don't we take a little dip in the wonderful lake?"

Leonard swan-dives into the lake, only to find it's freezing cold ("My body turned into a giant goose pimple"). At the point in the story where his wife is about to jump in, Cosby-as-Leonard says:

And I said to myself, "Why should I tell her?"

The first example of reported speech in the routine is quite similar to the pattern we're looking for, only with vocative bride rather than vocative self. But when Leonard, voiced by Cosby, recounts his self-address in the second example, vocative self does not appear.

It's possible that Cosby performed another, perhaps more extended, version of "Niagara Falls" where he has Leonard using vocative self. Or he might have used self-talk in another routine. It's also possible that the combined force of the above two examples has led to faulty recollections of Cosby making Leonard address himself as "Self...". (Anyone with a more intimate knowledge of Cosby's oeuvre is welcome to email me at: bgzimmer at-sign ling dot upenn dot edu.)

Regardless of Cosby's role in the popularization of self-talk, the turn of phrase became widespread by about the mid-1980s. Here are the first four appearances on the Usenet archive:, Sep. 6, 1983
If it is a Saturday, though, I would say to myself, "Self, it will undoubtedly be noisy, but it *is* Saturday, you can catch up on sleep later"., Jan. 6, 1985
Then I found out he was moving to a job in a different building, so I said to myself "Self", I said, "This is a nice person who you have liked for a while.", Mar. 11, 1986
Then I saw your Mr. Video's posting that his cable company had it for a while and I said to myself, "Self, what gives?"., July 10, 1986
So I then sez to myself "self, there can't be THAT much difference between RAM chips, can there?"

In these early examples, it's interesting to note that only the last one combines vocative self with the mock-dialectal form says (or sez in its eye-dialect spelling). In my previous post I mentioned that I says is common in American dialect writing, including in forms of self-address like I says to myself, I says... (or, again, with eye-dialect spelling: I sez to myself, I sez..., as it appears in Bret Harte's 1894 work The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and elsewhere). The modern pattern (So) I says to myself, "Self..." thus melds together the much older usage of I says with the newer vocative usage of self.

Based on some additional database research, it appears that there have been a number of popular variations on I says to myself, I says... dating back to the late 18th century, if not earlier. One version inverts the second I says to says I, as in this line attributed to Andrew Jackson in an anecdote that supposedly took place in 1798 (when Jackson was a judge in Tennessee):

And so I says to myself, says I, hoss, it's about time to sing small, and so I did.
—quoted in The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini (1990), p. 44

This variant was common enough to appear in the works of a number of famous 19th-century American and British authors:

After you left me, I began to generalize over my sitiation, and I says to myself, says I, 'Moses Marble, them lads will never consent to sail and leave you here, on this island, alone like a bloody hermit,' says I.
Afloat and Ashore by James Fenimore Cooper (1844)

I'd got money enough, wi' only one daughter to leave it to, an' I says to myself, says I, it's time to leave off moitherin' myself wi' this world so much, an' give more time to thinkin' of another.
Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot (1857)

"Often I says to myself, says I, 'I used to mend all the boys' kites and things, and show 'em where the good fishin' places was, and befriend 'em what I could, and now they've all forgot old Muff when he's in trouble; but Tom don't, and Huck don't—THEY don't forget him, says I, 'and I don't forget them.'"
Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

Sometimes I says to myself, says I, 'Well, I'll be jiggered!'"
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1886)

This expression was so pervasive that Charles S. Peirce, one of the founders of modern semiotics, used it at least twice as a "vernacular" elucidation of the exchange of signs within the mind:

Now it is needless to say that conversation is composed of signs. Accordingly, we find the sort of mind that is least sophisticated and is surest to betray itself by its language is given to such expressions as "I says to myself, says I."
—1907 manuscript, quoted in "Charles S. Peirce on Objects of Thought and Representation" by Helmut Pape, Noûs 24:3 (June 1990), pp. 383

Meditation is dialogue. 'I says to myself, says I' is a vernacular account of it; and the most minute and tireless study of logic only fortifies this conception.
—review of biography of Alfred Russell Wallace (date unknown), quoted in Peirce's Approach to the Self by Vincent Michael Colapietro (1989), p. xiv

What about inverting both the first and second appearances of I says in the expression to says I? This version is not quite as common in 19th-century texts, but some digging turns up a number of literary examples:

Says I to myself, says I—' that's twice you've done it, my buzzum friend and sweet-scented shrub—but you doesn't do that 'ere again.'
—"The Fastest Funeral on Record" by F. A. Durivage, in A Quarter Race in Kentucky, and Other Sketches, edited by William Trotter Porter (c. 1854), p. 50

Well, I hadn't read a page hardly afore she was asleep, and then I laid down the book; and says I to myself, says I, "What shall I do next?" ... Well, says I to myself, says I, "Suppose it was the devil or a Britisher that was there."
The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick by Thomas Chandler Haliburton (c. 1866), p. 249

Says I to myself, says I, 'This poor fellow's got no capital; and he hasn't the head to git capital.'
—"How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and Wife" by William Gilmore Simms (1870)

But the best-known example of this variant came in the 20th century, in a line from Ulysses:

Hoho begob, says I to myself, says I.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

In their 1959 book Song in the Works of James Joyce, Matthew Hodgart and Mabel Worthington suggest that this is an allusion to the refrain of the Lord Chancellor's song in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1882 opera Iolanthe :

When I went to the Bar as a very young man,
(Said I to myself—said I),
I'll work on a new and original plan,
(Said I to myself—said I),
I'll never assume that a rogue or a thief
Is a gentleman worthy implicit belief,
Because his attorney has sent me a brief,
(Said I to myself—said I!).

Given the numerous variations on this expression in American and British literature, I'm not so sure that Joyce had Iolanthe in mind when he wrote the line in Ulysses. In fact, it might have been modeled on an earlier song with says I, perhaps predating Gilbert and Sullivan, as suggested by this quote from the author A.C. Benson:

The essay is the reverie, the frame of mind in which a man says, in the words of the old song, "Says I to myself, says I."
—A.C. Benson, "The Art of the Essayist" in Modern English Essays, edited by Ernest Rhys (1922), pp. 50-51

(A later song elaborates the pattern further, with one says I inversion: "I Says To Myself Says I, Say There's The One For Me," by Harry Akst and Jack Yellen, used in the 1929 film Bulldog Drummond.)

These endless variations on the theme demonstrate that the narration of an interior dialogue using the (mock-)dialectal forms I says and says I long ago achieved cliché status. Versions with says I, though once quite common, dropped out of usage, but the I says version has stuck around long enough to join together in new forms with vocative self.

And so I says to myself, "Self," I says, "Have I spent far too much time pursuing this?"

[* Update #1: Lance Nathan comes through with a pre-1980 example of self-talk, in a form that is slightly different from what I had been looking for. It appears in a song performed by Three Dog Night and composed by Allen Toussaint:

So I said to myself
I said "Self, do you see what is sailin' through my soul?"
And I gotta have some more, don't ya know.
—"Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)" by Three Dog Night (1974)

According to All Music Guide, Three Dog Night wasn't the first to perform Toussaint's song; in 1973, the Scottish R&B singer Frankie Miller sang a version of it. (Toussaint himself never released a studio version of the song, though he recorded a live version on the album New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 1976.)

Nathan also suggests that this might be patterned on a humorous template for making puns on people's names, e.g.: "So I says to the man floating in the water, I says, 'Bob...'"]

[Update #2: Two more uncorroborated leads on comedic sources for the expression: Henny Youngman and Art Carney (as Ed Norton on "The Honeymooners").]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 23, 2005 01:06 AM