Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
There’s a 1995 episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry, George and Kramer play basketball at the local health club with a guy named Jimmy. Not only does Jimmy sell special training shoes that supposedly increase your vertical leap, but he always refers to himself in the third person.
Because of Jimmy’s use of third-person, George invests in the specialty shoes and Elaine mistakenly agrees to go on a date with Jimmy. Hilarity ensues.
Believe it or not, there’s a term for someone who refers to himself in the third person: an illeist. At first glance, this sounds like a person who believes in a sick deity; I assure you this isn’t the case. Illeism is the act of referring to yourself in the third person. Illeism is also known as “self-talk” or “self-naming.”
And, while you’re wondering, here’s the secret on when to use the hyphen: Write “third person” when the term is used as a noun and write “third-person” when using the term as a compound adjective.
We get the term “illeism” from the Latin word “ille,” which means “he” or “that man.” The word was first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1809. The plural version of illeism is the term “nosism,” more commonly known as “the royal we.”
In Curtis’ research, Curtis has found three primary areas where illeism thrives: In Shakespeare, among professional athletes, and among politicians. If I had time to add a fourth category, it would be Elmo. But Curtis doesn’t have time to discuss Elmo.
Shakespeare employed illeism before it was a word. In “Julius Caesar,” the eponymous hero says, “The gods do this in shame of cowardice: /Caesar should be a beast without a heart,/If he should stay at home to-day for fear/No, Caesar shall not: danger knows full well/That Caesar is more dangerous than he.”
When it comes to professional athletes, something compels them to practice illeism during interviews. While I could search the internet for examples, the king of pro sports illeism is baseball hall-of-famer Ricky Henderson. When Henderson misplaced his limousine, he said, “Rickey don’t like it when Rickey can’t find Rickey’s limo.”
Finally, illeism wouldn’t exist without politicians — quite possibly the best at talking about themselves. While I could make a reference to a recent president here, he doesn’t hold a candle to the master illeist Bob Dole. In 1996, Dole famously declared, “Make no mistake, Bob Dole is going to be the Republican nominee.”
Some say illeism sounds pretentious, and I tend to agree. For some reason, however, the elitist illeist are the ones who sound the silliest.