[Ads-l] More Facebookery

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Jul 28 14:31:12 UTC 2018

I have been using “themself” as a reflexive for singular referents for some time, although it still gets “corrected” in my mail program.  The OED has hits for this use, glossed as

2. In anaphoric reference to a singular pronoun or noun of undetermined gender or where the meaning implies more than one: _himself or herself_.

back to the 15th c., including a couple from Caxton and Thomas More:

c1450   in Publ. Mod. Lang. Assoc. Amer. (1911) 26 170   Euery creature That ys gylty and knowyth thaym-self coulpable.
1463–5   Rolls of Parl.: Edward IV (Electronic ed.) Parl. Apr. 1463 §38. m. 12   Inheritementes, of which any of the seid persones..was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other.
1489  (▸a1380)    J. Barbour Bruce (Adv.) i. l. 502   Thar is nother man na page In all this land than thai sall be Fayn to mak thaim selewyn fre.
1490   Caxton tr. Foure Sonnes of Aymon (1885) i. 39   Eche of theym sholde..make theymselfe redy.
1533   T. More Apologye 55 b   Neyther Tyndale there nor thys precher..hath by theyr maner of expounynge..wonne them self mych wurshyp.

Its modern examples include

1946   G. Kanin Born Yesterday iii. 140   If I ever seen somebody outsmart themself, it's you.
1967   P. Nichols Day in Death Joe Egg ii. 47   I don't know whether anyone sees themself as an old-age pensioner.
2007   Glamour Apr. 58/2   Over-thinking is a person's way of defending themself emotionally but it can lead to unnecessary paranoia.

It seems entirely parallel to “yourself” used for singular rather than plural 2d person antecedents, and also to “ourself” for royal “we”, as opposed to the editorial “we” or the “we” for speakers with tapeworms (according to a no doubt apocryphal attribution to Mark Twain), where “ourselves” seems more suitable.  Actually, maybe the editorial “we” can play it either way; I don’t have a strong intuition there.  Since we’ve managed “you” (sg.)…”yourself” vs. “you (pl.)…yourselves” for several centuries without significant problems, I don’t see what the fuss is for “they” (sg.)…themself” vs. “they" (pl.)…”themselves”.  


> On Jul 28, 2018, at 2:01 AM, Mark Mandel <mark.a.mandel at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> On Fri, Jul 27, 2018 at 2:40 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
>> ...
>> If you live long enough actually to see your language deteriorating - er,
>> _evolving_ - right before your very eyes, it can be disconcerting, if not
>> seriously annoying. E.g., an actress in a commercial has just said, "Teach
>> them to love _themself_." And this is hardly a unique example. The
>> replacement of _-selves_ by _-self_ appears to be proceeding apace.
> To be precise, with singular "they", i.e., the use of "they" to avoid
> specifying gender for a singular or possibly singular referent. At least, I
> *hope* we're not having "themself" used with a plural referent! In Wilson's
> example there's no way to tell.
> Mark Mandel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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