Vocative self-address, from ancient Greece to Donald Trump

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Earlier this week on Twitter, Donald Trump took credit for a surge in the Consumer Confidence Index, and with characteristic humility, concluded the tweet with “Thanks Donald!”

The “Thanks Donald!” capper led many to muse about whether Trump was referring to himself in the second person, the third person, or perhaps both.

Since English only marks grammatical person on pronouns, it’s not surprising that there is confusion over what is happening with the proper name “Donald” in “Thanks, Donald!” We associate proper names with third-person reference (“Donald Trump is the president-elect”), but a name can also be used as a vocative expression associated with second-person address (“Pleased to meet you, Donald Trump”). For more on how proper names and noun phrases in general get used as vocatives in English, see two conference papers from Arnold Zwicky: “Hey, Whatsyourname!” (CLS 10, 1974) and “Isolated NPs” (Semantics Fest 5, 2004).

The use of one’s own name in third-person reference is called illeism. Arnold Zwicky’s 2007 Language Log post, “Illeism and its relatives” rounds up many examples, including from politicians like Bob Dole, a notorious illeist. But what Trump is doing in tweeting “Thanks, Donald!” isn’t exactly illeism, since the vocative construction implies second-person address rather than third-person reference. We can call this a form of vocative self-address, wherein Trump treats himself as an addressee and uses his own name as a vocative to create something of an imagined interior dialogue.

Vocative self-address can be found in classical literature, for instance in Idyll XI by the bucolic poet Theocritus. The Cyclops Polyphemus addresses himself using the Greek rhetorical device of apostrophe:

ὦ Κύκλωψ Κύκλωψ, πᾷ τὰς φρένας ἐκπεπότασαι

O Cyclops, Cyclops, where be your wits gone flying?
(transl. by J.M. Edmonds)

Or in a more modern rendering:

Cyclops, Cyclops, have you lost your mind?
(transl. by Diane Arnson Svarlien)

Shakespeare used it too, as when the Earl of Kent is speaking to himself in King Lear:

If but as well I other accents borrow,
That can my speech diffuse, my good intent
May carry through itself to that full issue
For which I razed my likeness. Now, banished Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned,
So may it come thy master, whom thou lovest,
Shall find thee full of labors.

(See Vocative Constructions in the Language of Shakespeare by Beatrix Busse for more.)

In these literary examples, a character uses a construction associated with second-person address to turn an interior monologue into a kind of dialogue. People in real life can do that too, for instance when chastising oneself with one’s own name. Stephen Colbert used to do that in a jokey way on his old Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. At the very end of this clip, for instance, you can hear him say, “Get it together, Colbert! Get it together!” (As noted by Mr. Verb, when Colbert was addressing himself, he would lapse into the original family pronunciation of his last name, “COLE-bert,” rather than “cole-BEAR.”)

Trump’s vocative self-address is hardly chastising, of course, as he is flagrantly patting himself on the back. But this form of address has also been used performatively to laud oneself, or at least a persona based on oneself. Take, for instance, Bo Diddley, aka Ellas McDaniel, who frequently indulged in illeism in such classic songs as “Bo Diddley,” “Diddley Daddy,” “Hey, Bo Diddley,” and “Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger.” In the lyrics, he tended to name-drop himself in third-person reference, but he also used a second-person vocative style. His first hit, “Bo Diddley,” starts with him talking about Bo Diddley in the third person: “Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring.” But at the end, he is addressing “Bo Diddley” (or at least saying his name) with an apparent vocative:

Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?
My pretty baby said she wasn’t for it.

(Some transcriptions of the lyrics have that final line as “My pretty baby said she was a bird,” but I think that’s a mishearing of McDaniel’s dialectal pronunciation of “wasn’t for it.”)

Here it’s difficult to tell, though, whether Bo is in fact recounting reported dialogue, with someone else asking, “Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?” In any case, as Jonathan Lighter pointed out on the American Dialect Society mailing list when we were discussing Bo Diddley-style illeism, the narrative form of these songs is a complex matter: “There’s Diddley, then there’s the unnamed narrator of the song, then there’s ‘Diddley,’ a possibly fictitious character in the song.”

A more obvious precursor to Trump’s “Thanks, Donald!” (and one that was frequently pointed out on Twitter) is the “Thanks, Obama!” meme. While “Thanks, Obama!” started out as a sarcastic expression among conservatives blaming Obama for societal problems, it was quickly turned around by Obama supporters who ridiculed such scapegoating by using “Thanks, Obama!” to pretend to complain about various petty issues. (For more, see Know Your Meme and our treatment in “Among the New Words,” American Speech, Vol. 91, No. 2, pp. 214-15.)

Obama himself got in on the “Thanks, Obama!” action at least twice. In February 2015, he took part in a light-hearted video for Buzzfeed, “Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About, Featuring President Obama” (part of his effort to get more young people to enroll on healthcare.gov). Buzzfeed had previously played with the “Thanks, Obama!” meme in the satirical post, “26 Ways President Obama Has Completely Ruined The Country.” In it, Obama was blamed for “SOMEHOW allowing cookies to get bigger than the glasses they are meant to be dunked in.” In the Feb. 2015 video, Obama himself tries to dunk a cookie in a glass of milk and says “Thanks, Obama!” when he fails.

Then in September 2016, stumping for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia, Obama had this to say (according to the official transcript):

THE PRESIDENT: So, now, let’s face it — Republicans don’t like to hear good news right now. (Laughter.) But it’s important just to understand this is a big deal. More Americans are working, more have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Gas is two dollars!

THE PRESIDENT: And gas is two dollars a gallon. I didn’t even — thank you for reminding me. (Laughter.) Thanks, Obama. (Laughter and applause.)

Perhaps Trump heard Obama’s appropriation of the “Thanks, Obama!” meme and thought he’d try it out for himself. But it’s fair to say that “Thanks, Donald!” lacks the layers of irony built into Obama’s simultaneously self-effacing and self-congratulatory usage. Trump has never been big on irony, of course.



26 Comments

  1. Cervantes said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    You’re just giving him a pass on that missing comma? (Beware the soft bigotry of low expectations.)

    Anyhow:

    Earlier this week on Twitter, Donald Trump took credit for a surge in the Consumer Confidence Index

    That seems implicit in his remark; but maybe he’s also thanking consumers for expressing such confidence (in him)? As in:

    The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points to 113.7, THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS! Thanks [, all you newly Confident Consumers! Love,] Donald!

    Unlikely?

  2. cass said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    Not quite the same, since she imagines a goddess speaking to her, but I love Sappho’s use of self-address in her Aphrodite poem. And if you look more at the theme and likely intent of the poem, she is pretty clearly talking to herself.

    τίς σ’, ὦ Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;

    Who wrongs you, Sappho?

    http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/sappho/sape01u.htm
    http://www.aoidoi.org/poets/sappho/sappho-1.pdf

  3. Ross Presser said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    If you’re going to add words, why not add them at the beginning, making the fragment into one sentence?

    [The Entire United States] Thanks Donald!

    or

    [Fortunately, nobody who knows what’s going on] Thanks Donald!

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    Cervantes: I do end some e-mails this way:

    Thanks,
    Jerry

    which, I’ve noticed, could look as if I’m addressing myself. But when I’m really addressing myself, I says to myself, “Self,” I says… [LLog link]

    Shakespeare, by the way, has his characters do this all the time. (Not literally all the time.) He even combines it with a more traditional Latin vocative. “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!”

  5. Cervantes said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    I love it!

    If you’re on Twitter, send your versions in his general direction, preferably at 3 in the morning.

  6. Michael said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

    Thank YOU for the lesson in Bo Diddley’s dialectical pronunciation. Now I have reason to pull out one of my favorite CDs again.

  7. Sili said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    It’s third person. Like “Thank God”. Having been compared to the infant Christ by the GOP(/D) it it’s only natural that he (He? ) picks up the mantle.

  8. Eric P Smith said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 6:48 pm

    How does this relate to the archaic, “Be swift, my soul, to answer him, be jubilant, my feet!” where the speaker is exhorting himself using third-party language?

  9. James said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 6:49 pm

    No, in “Thank God”, ‘God’ is the direct object of the verb ‘thank’. That’s definitely not how “Thanks, Donald” works.

  10. Mark S said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: There’s a view that “Then fall, Caesar” is actually a stage direction, rather than Caesar’s last words. See, for example, https://books.google.com/books?id=W1wRdNgVxr0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false page 235.

  11. Cervantes said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 9:15 pm

    There’s a view that “Then fall, Caesar” is actually a stage direction, rather than Caesar’s last words

    Mark, you may be right about there being such a view but the material you cite would not lend that view any support. Here’s the line you’re talking about:

    The words with which he follows it, “Then fall, Caesar,” are a stage direction to this character whom he has created, the completely constant Caesar.

    In those two third-person pronouns, the author (Melehy) is referring to Caesar himself, not to the Bard. The entire section (beginning p. 232) is about “the difference between [(the character) Caesar’s] constant persona and his inconstant person.” The persona’s constancy is exposed as “a theatrical effect, performed in response to the theatrics [of others in the play]” (p. 234).

    To put it more succinctly: The character’s last words, “Then fall, Caesar,” are a “stage direction” but one that the character is giving himself.

  12. Karl Weber said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

    Back in 1977 I was a broken-hearted Mets fan when Tom Seaver was traded to the Reds as a result of a contract dispute. Seaver himself was very upset about it, and I remember him getting choked up during a press conference and pausing to address himself in barely audible tones: “Come on, George . . . ” (George is his actual first name. Tom is his middle name.)

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 10:20 pm

    There seems to be some disagreement about whether “Then fall Caesar!” includes a comma or not. Without one, it can plausibly be read as “Then Caesar falls” (third person), which at any rate is how I’ve always read it. The idea that he’s instructing himself to fall (second person) is new to me.

  14. maidhc said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 3:40 am

    Interesting discussion about Bo Diddley. The songs he performed in his classic period are a bit like a discussion about some mythical character.

    I got a story I really wanna tell
    About Bo Diddley at the OK Corral
    (Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger)

    but some of his first-person songs are pretty mythical too.

    I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
    I use a cobra-snake for a necktie,
    I got a brand new house on the roadside,
    Made from rattlesnake hide,
    I got a brand new chimney made on top,
    Made out of a human skull,
    Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
    And tell me, who do you love?

    I saw Bo Diddley at our local university a couple of years before he died. Because of his health he had to play sitting down, but he did an amazing show for someone nearly 80. I remember a couple of his lines from that performance that had some variations on the way he used his name.

    Some people say old people can’t rap
    But I’m Bo Diddley, I ain’t taking no nap

    Take a tip from Bo Diddley
    Stay in school, get your PhD

    He’s hardly the only performer to create a persona. I heard an interview with Debbie Harry where she said Blondie is a character she plays. And there was David Bowie.

  15. maidhc said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 3:58 am

    Eric P Smith: Not so archaic, perhaps. “Feets, don’t fail me now” was from the early 20th century (perhaps c. 1920). Origin disputed, according to Wikipedia.

  16. Bart said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 4:30 am

    Here’s a thought. The use of one’s own name in third-person reference when speaking English is called illeism. But what about a language where use of one’s own name is normal, and use of a pronoun is less so?

    If asking an Indonesian friend or relative for a cup of coffee, I wouldn’t normally say ‘Saya mau kopi’ (‘I want coffee’); more normal would be ‘Bart mau kopi’ (‘Bart wants coffee’).

    Perhaps in such languages we should keep the term illeism for cases where one refers to oneself in a strikingly unusual way: eg the equivalent of ‘the person sitting in this chair wants coffee’.

  17. Cervantes said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 7:38 am

    In Malay and Indonesian, saya — meaning “I,” “me,” “mine” — used to be sahaya, which, in a bit of a twist, likely came from the Sanskrit सहाय ‎(sahāya), meaning “helper,” or “companion,” or “follower,” or “accomplice.”

  18. Robert Coren said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 10:17 am

    @Gregory Kusnick: I don’t think I’d ever heard of the line without the comma, but I would interpret “fall Caesar” as “let Caesar fall” rather than “Caesar falls”.

  19. Martha said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    I always took the “Bo Diddley” in “Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley have you heard…” to be filler, along the lines of “na na na na,” not to be addressing Bo Diddley. And since Bo Diddley’s so great, he’s worth mentioning a couple more times.

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

    Robert Coren: Yes, your rephrasing expresses the sense of it better than mine.

    Here is what appears to be an authoritative text of the First Folio that omits the comma, but also seems to omit it from all second-person vocatives (“Et Tu Brutè?”), so that’s not much help.

  21. D.O. said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    A full sentence in caps; and it is still 2016…

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:38 am

    If people don’t think my example from Julius Caesar is a good one, this is from Richard III, Act 4, Scene 4: Queen Margaret says, “Withdraw thee, wretched Margaret: who comes here?”

  23. Margaret Wilson said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    On “So I says to myself, Self, I says, . . .”:

    This proto version occurs in Tom Sawyer, Ch. 23, from the character Muff Potter: “Often I says to myself, says I, . . . ” Obviously missing the key element of addressing oneself as “Self,” but the rest of it is place.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    How would one describe the rhetorical strategy of Christ as presented in the Gospels, who unlike Bob Dole or a Shakespeare character eschews both overt illeism and self-address, and indeed often tends to refer to his name/title/status only anaphorically. E.g. “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.” Or another example (where Jesus sets it up a little more heavy-handedly): “Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee.” Regardless of the theological implications of why Jesus might disclose/confirm his identity in this rather convoluted fashion, is there a standard syntactic/pragmatic way of describing what’s going on?

  25. ajay said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    There seems to be some disagreement about whether “Then fall Caesar!” includes a comma or not. Without one, it can plausibly be read as “Then Caesar falls” (third person), which at any rate is how I’ve always read it.

    I always thought it lacked a comma, making it a subjunctive phrase: “then may Caesar fall”. cf. “Come wind, come wrack/at least we’ll die with harness on our back.”

  26. John Williams said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Always made me laugh when I was 12:

    DAN ROWAN: Say goodnight Dick.
    DICK MARTIN: Goodnight Dick.

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