An illeist is someone who refers to himself in the third person, as Richard Nixon famously did when, after losing the bid for the California governorship in 1962, he said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Today, Nixon’s sound bite is remembered as much for his use of the third person as for its inaccuracy. From other politicians and a Sesame Street staple, to athletes and a character on Seinfeld, here’s a closer look at 11 famous illeists.
After losing the New Hampshire primary to Pat Buchanan during the 1996 presidential election campaign, Bob Dole announced, “You’re going to see the real Bob Dole out there from now on.” The real Bob Dole regularly referred to himself in the third person, a habit that made him the target of ridicule in a series of skits on Saturday Night Live. After being mocked for such bizarre remarks as “If you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, I think you’d probably leave them with Bob Dole,” Dole hired a speech coach to reform his illeist ways. While it didn’t ultimately turn the election in his favor, the tactic improved Dole’s oratory skills. In October 1996, USA Today reported, “He has already largely rid his standard campaign speech of the verbal tic that’s prompted the most jokes about his style: third-person references to himself as ‘Bob Dole.’ Friday in Dewey Beach, Del., the Kansas senator referred to himself as ‘Bob Dole’ only once and used the pronoun ‘I’ 59 times.”
Athletes, such as two-sport star Bo Jackson, seem to be especially prone to illeism. The late Dick Schaap, who co-authored Bo Jackson’s biography, Bo Knows Bo, traced the origins of illeism in professional sports to the 1930s, when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean referred to himself as “Ol’ Diz.” Jackson began referring to himself in the third person at a young age, in part because of a well-documented stutter that made it difficult for him to say “I.” When Jackson burst onto the scene as a home run-hitting outfielder for the Kansas City Royals and a touchdown-scoring running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, he parlayed his unusual habit into a series of popular “Bo Knows Bo” Nike commercials.
In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jimmy, played by Anthony Starke, constantly refers to himself in the third person. Elaine agrees to a date with Jimmy, mistaking his interest in her (“You’re just Jimmy’s type”) for that of another man at the gym.
Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson took the art of base stealing and illeism to another level. As Henderson himself might tell you, among professional athletes, Rickey is the greatest illeist of all time. One of the many famous Rickey-isms was the voicemail message he left for Padres general manager Kevin Towers. “Kevin, this is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey,” Henderson said. “Rickey wants to play baseball.” Henderson once climbed aboard the Padres team bus and headed toward the back, when someone said, “You have tenure, sit wherever you want.” Rickey responded: “Ten years? Rickey’s been playing at least 16, 17 years.”
Some parents undoubtedly cringe at the sound of the furry red Sesame Street character telling children, “Elmo loves you!” The concern that Elmo’s tickle-me-illeist tendencies might teach children improper English is addressed on the FAQ page of sesameworkshop.org. “Elmo mimics the behavior of many preschoolers,” according to the Web site. “Like 3-year-olds, he doesn’t always have the skills or knowledge to speak proper English. Cast members and many of the other Muppets, however, do demonstrate proper usage of the English language.” The Language Log explored this very issue in 2008 and concluded, “Toddler illeism is a temporary solution to the complex problem of self-reference, and keeping your kid away from Elmo won’t prevent it.”
Caesar, who wrote about himself in the third person in his accounts of his conquests in The Gallic Wars, was one of the first known illeists. He had pretty much earned the right to refer to himself however he pleased. Cicero, for one, was a big fan of Caesar’s style. “The Gallic War is splendid,” he wrote. “It is bare, straight and handsome, stripped of rhetorical ornament like an athlete of his clothes.” Caesar’s regular use of the third person is parodied in the Asterix comic books.
Salvador Dali was an odd bird. During a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in 1958, Dali referred to himself in the third person, at one point stating, “Dali is immortal and will not die.” In his memoirs, Dali wrote about most of his life in the first person, but he would occasionally use the third person. On the subject of his birth, for instance, he wrote, “Look! Salvador Dali is born.”
Soccer legend Pelé, who was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, refers to himself in the third person because he thinks of himself as two distinct people. “Yes, of course I think of Pelé as a different person,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1994. “When I met Pelé, I was seven or eight. Pelé doesn’t have a nation, race, religion or color. People all over the world love Pelé. Edson is a man like other men.”
In a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Pelé echoed the same beliefs. “I think of Pelé as a gift of God. We have billions of billions of people in the world, and we have one Beethoven, one Bach, one Michelangelo, one Pelé. That is the gift of God.”
Charles de Gaulle thought very highly of himself, as evidenced by his repeated use of the third person in his memoirs. According to a 1970 review of the first volume in Time, “the book is De Gaulle at his infuriating best. It overflows with the lofty certitude and self-confidence of a man who, without embarrassment, can refer to himself repeatedly in the third person.” Describing the assassination attempt on him in August 1962, De Gaulle writes: “Of the 150-odd bullets aimed at us, 14 strike our vehicle. Yet—none of us is hit. May De Gaulle therefore go on pursuing his road and his vocation!”
Before he got into movies, Dwayne Johnson struck fear into the hearts of his fellow wrestlers and elementary school English teachers alike with his signature phrase: “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?”
While Geraldo Rivera doesn’t regularly refer to himself in the third person, one example of a time when he did is ridiculous enough to land him on this list. In 2001, responding to criticism that he had fabricated a story as part of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan, Rivera said, “It’s time to stop bashing Geraldo. If you want to knife me in the back after all the courage I’ve displayed and serious reporting I’ve done, I’ve got no patience with this (expletive).”
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