21 October 2016
Former French leader Charles de Gaulle often referred to himself by his own name in his speeches. Photo: BBC
Former French leader Charles de Gaulle often referred to himself by his own name in his speeches. Photo: BBC

Illeism: from Charles de Gaulle to Donald Trump

Recently a candidate in the upcoming Legislative Council election intrigued media by always referring to himself in the third person, instead of using the first person, in his speeches.

There’s a term for this – illeism – which is itself an interesting topic in the study of international relations.

The term comes from the Latin word “ille”, which is equivalent to the third person “he” in modern English.

Illeism is the act of referring to oneself in the third person or by one’s own name in speeches or writings, instead of using the word “I”.

In literature, illeism is often used as a stylistic device by authors to impart an air of objectivity or impartiality to their account, and is particularly common in memoirs or autobiographies.

The use of illeism in literature in the West dates back to as early as the 1st century BC, in Julius Caesar’s famous work “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”, or “Commentaries on the Gallic War”.

Although the book is Julius Caesar’s first-hand account of the Gallic Wars, it is written as a third-person narrative, in which Caesar frequently refers to himself by his own name rather than using the word “I”.

In the following two millenniums, illeism continued to be applied to novels, plays and poems in the West.

Even to this day illeism is still used by some politicians and celebrities. Some of the famous illeists in modern times include Spanish artist Salvador Dali, former French president Charles De Gaulle, former US congressman Bob Dole, and most recently, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Illeism in everyday speech can have different effects, depending on the users’ intentions.

For example, in the past it was often used to impart humility to conversations in societies where social class hierarchy was strictly observed in order to suggest the speaker’s diminished importance in relation to the addressee.

For example, black slaves in the American South before the Civil War often referred to themselves in the third person in front of their white masters.

Illeism is also used in the military, for example, the US Marines, in order to reduce the sense of individuality of soldiers and to enforce the sense of subordination and obedience.

However, illeism is also used by people, mostly celebrities or political leaders, in the hope of raising their image in front of the public.

For example, Charles de Gaulle was well-known for his use of illeism from the time he was leading the French resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War.

Recently, Donald Trump has also started referring to himself as “Trump” rather than using “I” in his speeches.

However, unlike De Gaulle, whose masterful use of illesim in his speeches earned him respect and public confidence, Donald Trump’s adoption of illeism has quickly become a subject of mockery in the American media.

After all, unless you are a great leader who is larger than life like Charles de Gaulle, the use of illeism could backfire and make yourself a laughing stock.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 19.

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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