Themself.

Catherine Soanes asks: Is ‘themself’ a real word? She says, “Judging by the debate on the Net, themself stirs up much passion, with several pundits confidently declaring that ‘themself is not a word’. Well, much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, themself is a word and it has a long history to boot.” That history is quite interesting:

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records themself from the 14th century. It doesn’t have a separate entry of its own, but a note at the entry for themselves informs us:

in standard English themself was the normal form to c1540, but disappeared c1570. Themselfs, themselves appears c1500, and became the standard form c1540.

So for around 150 years, themself (though ending with the singular suffix –self) was considered to be correct when used to refer to a plural subject. A little more OED-delving shows that a similar situation existed when it came to first person plural reflexive pronouns. The form ourself is first recorded in the 14th century, when it was an accepted usage. There must have been a move towards pluralizing the singular suffix –self to –selfs or –selves for plural reflexive pronouns in the early to mid 16th century, when the forms ourselves and themselves first appeared.

Returning to the OED note, themselfs (with only 26 examples on the OEC) is no longer acceptable and has largely dropped out of use, meaning that for almost 500 years the main standard reflexive pronoun which corresponds to the plural forms they and them is the plural form themselves […].

She winds up with this sensible recommendation:

Given that it’s now largely acceptable to use they, them, or their instead of the more long-winded ‘he or she’, ‘him or her’, or ‘his or her’ (especially in conjunction with indefinite pronouns such as anyone or somebody) it might be argued that, logically, it should also be OK to use themself, it being viewed as the corresponding singular form of themselves. However, this isn’t yet the case, so beware of themself for now!

I myself occasionally use themself; it sounds a little strange, but I feel I’m helping advance the shining future.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    Here in Nova Scotia I have heard one person say themself quite naturally. She was a dean at our university but came from a family of fishermen, perhaps the lowliest, least educated occupation in the region and therefore likely to have dialectal peculiarities in their speech, some of which the highly educated daughter still preserved.

  2. I intuitively tend to pair singular they with themselves, but I’m trying to switch to themself where possible. The analogy with yourself is just too strong.

  3. It’s odd that the article doesn’t mention yourself/yourselves, which seems the obvious parallel.

  4. I’m fond of themself, strange creature that it is, and wrote in defence of it in 2012. One commenter felt differently, calling the word “stupid, wrong, ungraceful, and unnecessary” and saying it would “mutilate the language”. This made me like it all the more. (In fact you replied to them, Hat, with a reference to a Peever’s Bingo card, which I later made.) In some situations themself solves a semantic knot that themselves cannot; I detail a couple of these in the post.

    It has popped up in some prominent places since, including a Lucy Kellaway article in the Financial Times, which I reported on in 2014 along with some other interesting examples. I wonder if Kellaway had to stet it. There’ve also been posts about it at Lingua Franca, Lexicon Valley, and Merriam-Webster, so I expect its use and profile will keep rising slowly. Long may the mutilation continue.

  5. Whey the singular “they” explicitly refers to someone doing something alone, it seems very strange to use “themselves”; it’s almost as if we are talking about someone with multiple personalities:

    “A person in solitary confinement has no choice but to examine themselves.”
    “No parent should leave a 5-year-old child by themselves.”

    A good copy editor, if reluctant to use “themself”, would naturally want to rewrite sentences like these to avoid the problem (“examine their past”; “leave a child on their own”). But if we accept singular they as a pronoun with full rights, we should also accept “themself” in sentences where a single individual is clearly the referent.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    KI: It’s odd that the article doesn’t mention yourself/yourselves, which seems the obvious parallel.

    If there was originally a single morpheme self used for both singular and plural (in ourself, themself), yourself must have been the only plural form. At the time referred to the singular pronoun was still largely thou, with thyself as the reflexive. When you started to replace thou in most of its functions, yourself became as ambiguous as you, hence the creation of yourselves for an unambiguous plural.

    The current situation with the (re)acceptance of singular they is actually the opposite: when themselves becomes ambiguous like they, them, their, themself (still used in some dialects) should become the obvious singular form.

    It would have been interesting if the article had mentioned yourself/yourselves and compared the dates of first occurrence with those of themself/themselves. It is possible that yourselves started the plural forms in selves (the latter the plural of the independent word self), and ourselves and themselves (or theirselves) followed.

  7. Shouldn’t her most ancient majesty, the Queen Elisabeth (the second, Electric Bugaloo), use “ourself”?

  8. In fact you replied to them, Hat, with a reference to a Peever’s Bingo card, which I later made.

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten that very enjoyable thread!

  9. “We have experience that almost nobody else in the field has and a track record that certainly distinguishes ourself from Hillary Clinton.” —Rick Santorum

  10. You shouldn’t mention Santorum on a language blog.

  11. Heh.

  12. I like to think of “themself” as the high-class alternative to “theirself”.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Living as I do in the Shiny Digital Future, I regularly encounter and use themself with singular they. But of course such logical derivations are easier for a nonnative, detached speaker.

    ourself

    Huh. I know decidedly too much about Santorum, but didn’t know that.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    Ourself follows naturally from singular we. I like it.

  15. Oddly enough, dictionary.com attests ourself but not themself: “It is for ourself that we should strive for greater knowledge,” “We have taken unto ourself such powers as may be necessary.”

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    It’s written a bit ambiguously, so I can’t tell if she’s countering the “its not a word” claim just by pointing to (informal-register) current usage. Because saying “it is too a word because here are a bunch of OED cites ending by 1570” is not actually a rebuttal to the not-a-word claim unless you’ve got a principle that words cannot conceivably fall out of the language, which there seems no reason to adopt absent some sort of mystical belief in lexical immortality. “Yes it was” does not coherently contradict “no it isn’t.” That the current new usage is consistent with ancient usage is interesting enough for journalism but not really relevant to the status or legitimacy of the current usage.

    Now, there’s good reason to believe that “singular they” never actually went away in many varieties of spoken English even if it had to lie low for a few centuries in respectable/edited/written contexts, and it seems possible in principle that “themself” could have had the same sort of continuous yet below the radar existence, but that doesn’t seem to be the empirical claim being made here.

  17. The -self pronouns in English started out as emphatics that could be attached in apposition to any pronoun: in Old English we could say not only me selfe ‘myself’ but also ic selfe ‘I myself’. At some point in Middle English, the collocation her selfe was reinterpreted as a possessive rather than an appositive construction, and this then spread to the 1st and 2nd person forms as well as the plural: him selfe and it selfe remained intact, though non-standard varieties have levelled himself to hisself. In the original form, self(e) was always singular, but when reinterpreted as a possessive, it became tagged with the plural ending when used in the plural.

    Similarly, in the 18C, after the final loss of thou wert, singular you in Standard English took was in the preterite, contrasting with were in the plural (but this was apparently not true in the present tense). Levelling reached the standard language here, and soon we were saying you were in both numbers.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    ourself

    In the wake of the “Brexit” announcement, I have received a message from my bank with information about possible consequences for Canadians. The message was signed by a bank official, following a sentence summarizing financial advisers’ positions, which included: others, like ourself, …..

Speak Your Mind

*