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Illeist:

The (I hope temporary) habits of my 1.5-year-old remind me of one of my favorite words: "Illeist," which means "someone who refers to himself in the third person."

OK, it's not "favorite" in that I actually use it in conversation, since its obscurity makes it incapable of serving the basic function of a word (effective communication). But I still like to talk about it.

JosephSlater (mail):
Do you mean, for example, if I were to say, "Joseph Slater thinks illeist is a great word too, and when Joseph Slater thinks something is a great word, it's a great word"? If so, I ... um ... Joseph Slater ... agrees it's a great word. It's always hilarious to hear people (often pro atheletes) talk about themselves in the third person, but Joseph Slater didn't know there was a specific word for it. You've made Joseph Slater's day.
1.11.2007 10:07am
Jeek:
"Someone who refers to himself in the third person" = a pompous ass. =)
1.11.2007 10:08am
Mho (mail):
I can see how little ones bring that out, though maybe for a different reason than EV. I always put my (then) babies to into bed saying "Daddy loves you." Every night for as long as I walked them to sleep. I didn't think of it in "illeist" terms. I just assumed they were asleep and would hear it in their subconcious, where the identity of the speaker might not have been so obvious. Now, in their teen years, I sign my notes to them DLY. They know what it means even though I've never made the connection for them and they've never asked. (They're probably too embarrassed, now, to bring it up.)
1.11.2007 10:33am
New World Dan (www):
NewWorldDan does not think he's a pompous ass. NewWorldDan merely thinks of himself as eccentric. NewWorldDan's wife refers to herself in the 3rd person when she's angry or frustrated with herself.

As to the topic of parenting, small children go through a lot of odd phases. NewWorldDan's 3-year-old has started calling her parents by first name. NewWorldDan liked it better when he was simply known as 'Daddy'.
1.11.2007 10:36am
Cato (mail):
New World Dan:

Since "Daddy" is descriptive rather than a proper name, I wonder if it really is illeist, even though it seems to meet the dictionary definition.
1.11.2007 10:39am
Mark P. (mail):
Is the word exclusively masculine? Would a woman who refers to herself in the third person be an elleist?
1.11.2007 10:39am
Steve Donohue (mail) (www):
... or an illaist?
1.11.2007 10:46am
anonVCfan:
As is the case for most of our quibbles with life, if they are minor enough and common enough, there's a Seinfeld episode dealing with it.
1.11.2007 10:48am
Spartacus (www):
I think the best reason for referrefing to onesself in the third person when communicating with children (as I often do with my almost-two-year-old) is because of the possibility of pronoun confusion. For awhile my wife referred to herself as "me" (as most people do, in the fiorst person) when speaking to our son. He then began to call her "Me." He would also refer to himself as "You" because she would. So we switched back to the third person reference. Maybe when he's a little older, he'll understand the necessaity of pronoun declension when teh speaker changes, but not yet.
1.11.2007 10:59am
Mahlon:
Wow. It's my second new word of the day. The first was "defenestrate." After I looked that one up (it means to throw through or out of a window) I thought to myself, "Who would ever use this word if they really wanted to communicate?" The use of "big" or obscure words frustrates communication, which is, as EV points out, the function of words.
1.11.2007 10:59am
Silicon Valley Jim:
Is there a word for somebody who uses the third person to refer to the person to whom he is speaking? I've had some folks do this. I suspect that they went to some sales training classes in which they were told that "people love to hear their names, so use them!"
1.11.2007 11:06am
Dave N (mail):
I deal with a federal judge who refers to the himself in the first person plural. "We believe the evidence has shown..." I find myself biting my tongue and resisting the temptaton to intererupt with, "You and who else, your Honor?"

I do not know if this judge repeats the practice at home. I have visions of him telling his spouse, "We would like some more meat, dear."

In any event, I can vaguely understand why this judge has this affectation: He is saying that he is speaking not for himself, personally, but on behalf of the judicial branch.

That said, outside of the speech described in the above posts ("Mommy loves you"), refering to oneself in the third person singular is just weird. However, referring to oneself in the third person plural is likely a sign of mental illness.
1.11.2007 11:12am
KevinM:
"Bob Dole is no illeist."
1.11.2007 11:19am
PersonFromPorlock:

...the basic function of a word (effective communication).

Pretty rash assertion. 'Effective obfuscation' is often the goal, or just beating people about the head and shoulders with your vocabulary.
1.11.2007 11:21am
Spartacus (www):
"However, referring to oneself in the third person plural is likely a sign of mental illness"

I have never witnessed this phenomenon--"They would really like to go out today . . . " Yeah, mental illness alright.
1.11.2007 11:21am
Bob Dole:
Bob Dole definitely practiced illeism throughout Bob Dole's career.
1.11.2007 11:27am
A DC resident (mail):
Come on, now. The best example of an illeist is The Jimmy episode of Seinfeld. Jimmy has the hots for Elaine.

Jimmy: "You know...Jimmy is pretty sweet on you."
Elaine: "Aaaaaahhh! He is?!"
Jimmy: "Oh yeah!. Jimmy's been watching you....you're just Jimmy's type."
Elaine: "AAaaaaahhh! Really?"(giggles)
Jimmy: "Jimmy's new in town. Jimmy hem ..doesn't really know anyone."
Elaine: "Oh! well I'd like, like to get to know him."
Jimmy: "Jimmy would like to get to know you."
Elaine: "Ha...."

Jerry: You said, "George likes spicy chicken."
George: No I didn't.
Elaine: Yes, you did. You said, "George likes spicy chicken."
Jerry: You're turning into Jimmy.
George: George is getting upset!
1.11.2007 11:43am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Ahh...and all this time I thought cultural conservatives were going on about elitism. Never mind.
1.11.2007 11:49am
Ellen:
I don't think any of us would know what "defenestration" means but for our encounter with it in European history class in "The Defenestration of Prague."
1.11.2007 11:49am
liberty (mail) (www):
"I deal with a federal judge who refers to the himself in the first person plural. "

Maybe he thought he was in the service of the British Crown.
1.11.2007 11:50am
liberty (mail) (www):
Q the Enchanter,

Nice. Best laugh I've had in a while.
1.11.2007 11:52am
BobH (mail):
"OK, it's not 'favorite' in that I actually use it in conversation, since its obscurity makes it incapable of serving the basic function of a word (effective communication). But I still like to talk about it."

Doubtless you meant to say, "OK, it's not favorite in that Volokh actually uses it in conversation, since its obscurity makes it incapable of serving the basic function of a word (effective communication). But Volokh still likes to talk about it."
1.11.2007 11:54am
Anderson (mail) (www):
As Spartacus says, "floating" pronouns are indeed tricky. I wouldn't worry that Young Volokh will be illein' for long.

Hm. I may have to reconsider several rap lyrics in the light of this new information.
1.11.2007 12:24pm
JDE:
As the father of a nearly 3-year-old, I've noticed that the issue seems to extend to subject-object confusion in general. In one case, after hearing "Do you need me to carry you?" enough on long walks, she began to simply say "Want carry you." No, she didn't really want to carry me, she wanted to be carried.

The other day she told me "Ruth doesn't like me." This seemed odd, considering Ruth seemed to like her just fine. Eventually I got her to clarify that what she meant was, "I don't like Ruth."
1.11.2007 12:30pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
From an Asterix comic:

Guy: He's great!

Julius Caesar: Who?

Guy: You!

Julius Caesar: Oh, him!
1.11.2007 1:22pm
Houston Lawyer:
I think you should always use the most appropriate word, defenestration included, instead of preemptorily dumbing down your language. You at least get to amuse yourself that way and you can always explain your meaning if asked. Otherwise, we all end up in the double plus ungood territory.
1.11.2007 1:37pm
BobH (mail):
Houston Lawyer probably meant "peremptorily."
1.11.2007 1:46pm
Perry Dane:
The use of the third person (or first person plural) is, of course, most common (and notorious) in scholarly writing. Scientific writing, in particular, has for a long time stuck to the convention of sticking to both the third person and the passive voice to produce a style that even scientists must find turgid.

Question: Are these all just affectations? This author (that is to say, I) thinks so. Or do they serve a useful purpose, to convey objectivity, impersonality, gravitas, etc.?

Or, to play devil's advocate, is the increasing rejection of these conventions, even in some scientific writing, but most clearly in other fields, just a sign of our culture's increasing narcissism, subjectivism, emotivism, etc.?
1.11.2007 1:47pm
Perry Dane:
P.S. # 1: Did I really write "stuck to the convention of sticking"? No, it must have been "this author," not me.

P.S. # 2: Sprinkling in the third person can create some variety when just repeating "I" over and over again would be tedious. Of course, the best solution is to rewrite to eliminate the need for too many references to the author in the first place.

P.S. # 3: The first person plural sometimes is sometimes used with (purposeful or negligent) ambiguity or double-coding, so that it can refer either to the author or to a putative consensus of readers. (E.g., "we believe that....," "we care about....") This can be helpful, or annoying, partly depending on whether the reader accepts being lumped together with the author's invocation of "we."
1.11.2007 1:58pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
BobH: I think Houston Lawyer meant "preemptively."
1.11.2007 2:06pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
instead of preemptorily dumbing down your language.

Can you give us an example?...
1.11.2007 2:07pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
BobH: But, for what it's worth, the 1895 Funk's Standard Dictionary does have a word "pre-emptory," meaning "related to pre-emption." So I will cut Houston Lawyer some slack.
1.11.2007 2:07pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
All y'all have whelmed the old geezer dude today.

"Double Pluses" are scary, says the old geezer dude who scored double minuses yesterday.

Clumsy miscommunication of young ones is more enjoyable than deliberate miscommunication of teenagers.

Vegetable rights and peace, man.
1.11.2007 2:23pm
Marc Siegel (mail):
Speaking of how children use language, does anyone know what legally became of the child-sex-abuse cases of the early 90's and the public-panic about repressed memories?

I was reminded by this article.

Is there a legal remedy that these people can use?
1.11.2007 2:26pm
James Dillon (mail):

Speaking of how children use language, does anyone know what legally became of the child-sex-abuse cases of the early 90's and the public-panic about repressed memories?

Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things devoted a chapter to the repressed-memory phenomenon, concluding that it was all basically bunk. It's been a while since I read that book, but I seem to recall that there is at least one man in Maine serving a life sentence on the basis of his daughter's "repressed" memories of Satanic ritual abuse (which I seem to recall allegedly involved, inter alia, the cannibalism of infants).
1.11.2007 2:47pm
Houston Lawyer:
I seem to suffer from the lawyer's disease of making words up on the fly. I usually post comments with a dictionary near by, since the comments feature doesn't have spell check. However, spell check has its pitfalls, since I regularly use words that are not in Bill Gates's dictionary and I don't like all of his preferred spellings. The creation of confusion is sometimes half the fun. In addition, one of the most beautiful things about the English language is that you can occasionally make up a word and most everyone still understands what you meant.
1.11.2007 3:01pm
a reader:
Volokh slings the illeist rhymes
1.11.2007 3:11pm
Mahlon:
Houston Lawyer - The most appropriate word should be used. But in determining just what that word is, I think you must consider the audience and objective of the communication. If you are trying to communicate, why would you intentionally use an obfuscatory word? (I think everyone reading this blog knows what that word means).

Yes, you should always use the most appropriate word. But when faced with two equally appropriate words, use the one that wastes the least ink. It makes lifeeasier on the reader, and thus increases the likelihood of conveying the thought.
1.11.2007 3:29pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Since others beat me to The Defenestration of Prague and the royal/editorial we,

does anyone know what legally became of the child-sex-abuse cases of the early 90's and the public-panic about repressed memories?

Here in Massachusetts the Amiraults (Fells Acres) are still registered sex offenders. Gerald was paroled on April 30, 2004; Cheryl some years earlier; Violet died on September 12, 1997. See this site.
1.11.2007 3:39pm
PersonFromPorlock:

Is there a legal remedy that these people can use?

Well, yes, now that suicide's been decriminalized. Other than that, no; Harshbarger et al. fall into the 'Important People' category.
1.11.2007 3:47pm
ys:

Mark P.:
Is the word exclusively masculine? Would a woman who refers to herself in the third person be an elleist?

If it were from French, yes, but it ain't. It's from illus/illa, so not clear if it would change.
1.11.2007 3:56pm
Adeez (mail):
OK, most of us can agree that referring to oneself in the 3rd person is arrogrant, narcissistic, or both.

What about those who conclude each comment with their own screen name, despite the fact that his/her screen name is clearly visible to all up top?

E.g., ending this post with "So says Adeez!!!"
1.11.2007 4:06pm
ys:

Ellen:
I don't think any of us would know what "defenestration" means but for our encounter with it in European history class in "The Defenestration of Prague."

Also helps that there were two of them.
1.11.2007 4:08pm
Tacitean (mail) (www):
If I may, it actually comes from "ille, illa, illud," one of Latin's many demonstrative pronouns.

Now we all know about "illeists," but where does that leave Caesar? The man wrote his Gallic War Commentaries often referring to himself using "ipse," meaning "he himself," further intensifying the power of the third person. What an ipse-ist Tacitean himself would make!
1.11.2007 4:32pm
BobNSF (mail):

I don't think any of us would know what "defenestration" means but for our encounter with it in European history class in "The Defenestration of Prague."


A few years of Latin would also do the trick.


"Who would ever use this word if they really wanted to communicate?"


Were Bob to find himself and his friends in mortal danger from a menacing individual who happened to be standing near an open window, he might risk blurting out, "Let's defenestrate him!" in the hopes that his friends would understand and that the thug would not.
1.11.2007 5:42pm
BobH (mail):
Seems to me that if you have a basic knowledge of English and maybe one other language (though that's not crucial), "defenestrate" isn't hard to puzzle out -- even if you've never encountered it in history class. The prefix "de" pretty clearly means something along the lines of "get out of" -- as in "debark" (get out of a boat) or "deplane" (get out of an aircraft). The "fenestr-" part of it pretty clearly refers to a window ("Fenster" in German, "fenetre" in French, "ventana" in Spanish, "vent" in English). And the "-ate" suffix pretty clearly implies action of some sort. Put 'em all together and it pretty clearly adds up to something like "through action, someone or something goes out of a window."

And of course, you could look it up if you weren't sure.
1.11.2007 6:50pm
Lev:

"Someone who refers to himself in the third person" = a pompous ass. =)


An ileitist?
1.12.2007 12:23am
Visitor Again:
As the father of a nearly 3-year-old, I've noticed that the issue seems to extend to subject-object confusion in general.

I learned the distinction between you and me fairly early. My parents said we were going to Belle-Vue, a park with a zoo in Northern England. I heard Belle-Vue as Belve-You and so, naturally, I asked them when they were taking me to Belve-Me.

Speaking of how children use language, does anyone know what legally became of the child-sex-abuse cases of the early 90's and the public-panic about repressed memories?

The defendants in the first and perhaps most celebrated of the child-sex-abuse cases, the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s, went on to live their lives under a cloud of suspicion. Even after the defendants were acquitted (with one of them, Ray Buckey, having his jury hung on a few charges, never retried), surveys showed the vast majority of the public believed them guilty. That was largely the result of one-sided press coverage.

The methods used to interrogate the children have now been roundly condemned, and it is safe to say the testimony pointing to the defendants' guilt was highly unreliable. One of the alleged child victims, now, of course, an adult, wrote a long story for the Los Angeles Times a year or two ago revealing how it was he ended up telling his interrogators things he didn't remember at all. He apologized to all the defendants, although, since he was a manipulated child, it really was not his doing.

Court TV's story on the McMartin case has a section on "The True Victims," which describes what happened to some of the defendants in other similar cases. You can find it here.
1.12.2007 5:56am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
BobH: I'm not sure this is correct:

The "fenestr-" part of it pretty clearly refers to a window ("Fenster" in German, "fenetre" in French, "ventana" in Spanish, "vent" in English).

"Vent" in English, like, I suppose, "ventana" in Spanish, comes from the Latin "ventus" for "wind," according to the OED.

(Note: this is different from "vent" meaning "an opening or slit in a garment," which, like its more obscure synonym "fent," comes from the French "fendre," from the Latin "findere," meaning "to split." This is also different from "vent" having to do with "vending," or "vent" having to do with "ventriloquist"!)

On the other hand, "defenestrate" comes from the Latin "fenestra," meaning "window," from the Greek root "φαίυεω," meaning "to show."

So I don't think "Fenster" and "vent" are related.
1.12.2007 8:27am
Spartacus (www):
"when faced with two equally appropriate words, use the one that wastes the least ink"

Even if you are composing poetry?
1.12.2007 9:54am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Spartacus: The word "wastes" gives you enough wiggle room for anything.
1.12.2007 10:19am
Houston Lawyer:
For some reason defenestrate and throw the baby out with the bathwater are indelibly linked in my mind.
1.12.2007 10:22am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Houston Lawyer -- Meryl Yourish is on top of this: Woman remanded for allegedly defenestrating baby. So is Michael Jackson.
1.12.2007 11:47am
Marc Siegel (mail):
Thanks for the link, David Chesler.
1.12.2007 7:43pm