I sat next to two teenagers on the subway a couple of weeks ago and cringed as one of them repeatedly referred to herself in the third person: “Jessie so doesn’t wear Converse” and “Jessie’s sister? Freak show!”
People who refer to themselves in the third person, I recently discovered, are “illeists,” from the Latin meaning “that man,” as if someone else is you — a conveniently guilt-free syntax.
Remember when Facebook included the word “is” after people’s names in their status update templates? What a boon that was to latent illeists. Daniel is wearing his first pair of skinny jeans! Josh is watching Human Centipede.
Facebook has since removed the “is,” but many updates are still written in the third person, a habit hammered home by the users of Twitter: “BostonTerrier2013 saw Peter Dinklage drinking iced coffee @ 2nd and Houston!” “AmeetK just pulled Six of Swords from the deck!” Not that technology is entirely responsible for this lack of verbal responsibility.
At my local drug store recently, a woman approached the counter and told her child, “Mommy has to pay Mister Cashier Man now.” I realize that syntax must be reduced to its basic noun-and-verb constructions for toddlers learning to speak, but this kid was 6.
And Mister Cashier Man? This may be correct use of the third, but it sounds more like an online pseudonym than a human being. (I can’t imagine Miss Environmental Lawyer or Mister Script Supervisor would enjoy being avatarized, either.)
It may be a byproduct of the anonymity that the Internet provides, but there seems to be a growing number of parents who just can’t stop referring to themselves as nouns.
A father saying, “Daddy had a bad day at work” to his third-grade son may help assuage Dad’s guilt about not wanting to play a baseball game that afternoon, but it’s got some drawbacks. Aside from encouraging the 8-year-old to speak in illeistic slang, it doesn’t help with parent-child dynamics. If “that man” suddenly sets rules, it might be challenging for a personal pronoun to get the respect it deserves.
I used to illeicize when meeting acquaintances whose names I didn’t remember. I’d interject something like, “Rebecca Rule No. 1: Always save room for dessert.” The friends-of-a-friend usually
got the hint and introduced themselves. When they did, I was able to laugh and say, “Of course I remember you, Lester and Lottie!”
See? Not my fault.
If we think of ourselves in the third person, we represent ourselves as hapless bystanders. “We” have providence over our actions and decisions, whereas “they” do not. An awareness of this obviously calls for an immediate remedy. Rebecca Rule No. 2: She will never refer to herself in the third person again.
This article first appeared in The New York Times