When famous characters or people like Hercule Poirot and LeBron James refer to themselves by their own name, it's called illeism, and it can actually be a useful psychological technique.
Recently, Grammar Girl listener Mark J. Yevchak wrote in with an interesting question. He’d been watching the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” about the first days of the war in Iraq, and he noticed that one of the characters, Lt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, often uses his own name when speaking.
Here are a few examples:
- “The general has asked this battalion to be America's shock troops, and Godfather can't tell the general we don't do windows."
- “Godfather doesn't like being told what to do by the enemy.”
- “Godfather needs an airfield.”
Mark wanted to know what it’s called when someone talks like this. And he wondered if he was alone in thinking it made the speaker sound self-righteous.
Mark, here are your answers.
Illeism Is the Habit of Referring to Yourself in the Third Person
This verbal tic is known as "illeism." That's the habit of referring to yourself in the third person.
It can make the speaker sound egotistical. Think of Dwayne Johnson as "The Rock" asking, "Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?" He used illeism deliberately to exaggerate his self-importance.
Think also of the character Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Christie often portrayed the detective as referring to himself in the third person, as a way of depicting his self-grandeur. In one of her books, another character asks him about it:
- Dr. Lutz: Tell me, why do you insist on referring to yourself in the third person? It's intensely irritating!
- Hercule Poirot: It helps Poirot to keep a distance from his genius.
In the real world, speakers sometimes also revert to illeism when they want to create some distance between themselves and their actions. For example, when basketball player LeBron James was criticized for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, he responded using illeism: “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision … I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James … what would make him happy.”
James was lampooned for speaking this way and accused of being narcissistic. He might have been, or he might have been trying to control his emotions in a positive way.