Mind your language

Illeism: the weird habit of talking about oneself in the third person

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

Someone has been putting about reports that Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, refers to himself in the third person as ‘the Sajid’ or ‘the Saj’. This habit has a long history.

Xenophon entered his own Anabasis 2,400 years ago with the words: ‘There was in that host a certain man, an Athenian, Xenophon.’ Caesar played the same game, as Shakespeare must have noticed at grammar school, later making him die with his own name on his lips: ‘Then fall, Caesar.’ In The Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil (who, like Henry James, but in rather a different way, is the Master) does it: ‘Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop.’

It was Coleridge who coined the term illeism for referring to oneself in the third person. ‘Solicitude to avoid the use of our first personal pronoun,’ he wrote in the second number of his periodical The Friend, for 3 June 1809, ‘more often has its’ [sic] source in conscious selfishness than in true self-oblivion.’ Then there is the definite article that Mr Javid is said to have appropriated, like a chief such as the McGillycuddy of the Reeks. ‘The Saj’, though, has more the flavour of the Fonz in Happy Days, whose surname was Fonzarelli. The name Sajid is opaque to most people. In Arabic it refers to prostrating oneself — a good thing if it is towards God, as the Koran mentions in surah 39, verse 9.

So the Saj is not a title like the Akond of Swat, of whom Edward Lear asked: ‘Do his people like him extremely well? / Or do they, whenever they can, rebel, / or plot / At the Akond of Swat?/ If he catches them then, either old or young, / Does he have them chopped in pieces or hung, / Or shot, / The Akond of Swat?’

This particular akond (a title deriving from Persian) was Saidu Baba, but rulers of Swat, a princely state in what was India, later took the title of amir or wali, both of Arabic origin.

Perhaps the most annoying illeist in literature is Major Bagstock in Dombey and Son, who speaks of himself as old Joe Bagstock, old Joey Bagstock, old J. Bagstock, old Josh Bagstock, it being his idea of light humour ‘to be on the most familiar terms with his own name’. Chuck the habit, says Dot.

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