Illeism and other English Words from Latin Pronouns

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We’ve all noticed it in the speech of celebrities—a tendency to refer to themselves in third person.

“Make no mistake, Bob Dole is going to be the Republican nominee.”— Robert Dole.

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…” —Richard Nixon to the Press.

‘Trump hears that you don’t like what Trump is doing.’—Donald Trump to Bill Gates.

“I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, and what LeBron James was gonna do to make him happy.”—LeBron James.

“Without the fans, Floyd Mayweather wouldn’t be where he’s at today.”—Floyd Mayweather.

Authors also make use of the device with their fictional characters.

Caesar shall forth: the things that threaten’d me
Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished.—Julius Caesar [Julius Caesar II;2.]

“Hobbits always so polite, yes! O nice hobbits! Smeagol brings them up secret ways that nobody else could find.”—Smeagol, aka Gollum.

“Do not lie to Lord Voldemort, Muggle, for he knows…”—Lord Voldemort.

“Dobby is used to death threats, sir. Dobby gets them five times a day at home.”—Dobby, the House Elf.

There’s a name for this conversational device of referring to oneself in third person: illeism.

Coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1809, the word is formed from the Latin singular masculine pronoun ille (he).

Coleridge also came up with tuism from tu, the Latin second person singular pronoun. From what I can learn, Coleridge used the word to mean the act of referring to oneself as thou and not you. In the context of ethics, tuism is defined as “primary regard to the interests of another person or persons,” as opposed to egoism, “the theory which regards self-interest as the foundation of morality.”

Like illeism and tuism, egoism derives from a Latin pronoun: ego (I).

The Latin plural pronoun nos (we) gives us the ethical term nosism, “an attitude of mind in a group of persons, corresponding to egotism [self-conceit] in the individual.”

Another meaning of nosism is “the use of the second person pronoun we, in stating one’s own opinions.” This use is also known as the “editorial we” or the “royal we.”

Queen Elizabeth I of England uses the “royal we” in the opening sentence of her memorable speech at the Tilbury docks in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada:

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery.

In the next sentence, however, she slips into first person singular and continues with it. In this century, in her speeches, Elizabeth II tends to refer to herself with the singular pronoun, like the rest of us.

The “editorial we,” on the other hand, is still found in opinion pieces and in academic writing, although first person is making in-roads in both. Advice to graduate students now varies as to whether to avoid first person pronouns in order to convey an objective, impersonal tone and keep the focus on content rather than author. Students are advised to consult their teachers as to preferred usage.

A use of nosism that I could definitely do without is the cheery “And how are we feeling today?” uttered by perfectly fit medical caretakers to bedridden patients who feel awful.

As far as I can tell, the Latin word for you, vos, is still available for an –ism word. I suggest the creation of the word vosism to specify the “indefinite you,” also known as the generic or impersonal you. This use of you is usually condemned by writing teachers in all but the most informal writing. Instead of standing for a specific antecedent, this you can be interpreted as “a person.”

You can’t grow tomatoes without plenty of water and sunshine.

You shouldn’t go hiking alone without telling someone your plans.

So, there you have it, five English nouns formed from five Latin pronouns: egoism, tuism, illeism, nosism, and vosism. Who says Latin is dead?

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