English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Myself and other selfies

[Note: An updated post about “myself” and other “-self” words appeared on Aug. 27, 2018.]

Q: Every time I hear someone say “I myself,” it makes me pause. I can never figure out why someone would use such a redundancy. It seems more prevalent on the East Coast than on the West Coast. Is this regional? Is it correct?

A: There’s nothing wrong with using both a pronoun and its reflexive (“she herself,” “you yourself,” “I myself,” “me myself,” etc.), or a name plus a reflexive (“Herman himself,” “from Vivian herself”) for purposes of emphasizing the subject or object.

What some have criticized is the use of a reflexive in place of the pronoun or name, as in “John and myself went to the movies,” or “that’s between him and myself.” (Though those uses of reflexives aren’t considered grammatically incorrect today, a traditionalist would prefer “I” in the first example, and “me” in the second.)

But for more than a thousand years, people have used reflexive pronouns for emphasis by placing them in apposition to (that is, as the equivalent of) the subject or object.

As far as we can tell, the usage is common wherever English is spoken: in the US, the UK, and elsewhere.

Within its entry for “myself,” for example, the Oxford English Dictionary says that in “emphatic uses,” the reflexive pronoun appears “in apposition to” an accompanying subject or object pronoun (“I” or “me”).

The OED has examples dating from before the year 1000 for “I myself,” when it was written ic me sylf in Old English. And it has examples of “me myself” dating from around 1300.

In these usages, Oxford says, the reflexive pronoun is used “in apposition to” an accompanying subject or object pronoun. As the OED explains, when used in apposition to “I,” the meaning of the reflexive is “in my own person; for my part; personally, as far as I am concerned.”

In the simplest emphatic use, the OED says, “myself is generally placed immediately after I.”

But when it appears elsewhere, as in “I will go to him myself” or “I’ve never been there myself,” the emphasis takes on another character. As the OED says, “in other positions there is often an explicit or implicit contrast with the idea of any other person performing the action.”

And the emphasis is strongest of all, Oxford adds, when the reflexive comes first. An example: “Myself, I wouldn’t think of it.”

The emphatic reflexive is not only legitimate, but it’s found in English literature from the earliest times. You may have heard this line from A. E. Housman’s poem A Shropshire Lad (1896): “Then the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.”

Of course Housman may have used the construction purely for reasons of meter (though we think it serves an emphatic purpose as well). But even in prose, the usage is common in cases where the lone pronoun or name just wouldn’t be enough.

Just for fun we looked into a few Shakespeare concordances, and we found scores of examples from the plays and sonnets of the sterling lad himself.

Shakespeare used “I myself” at least 38 times, as in this line from King Henry IV, Part I: “For I myself must hunt this deer to death.”

He used “you yourself” at least 18 times, as in this line from Twelfth Night: “It is perchance that you yourself were saved.”

He also used “he himself” 12 times, “she herself” seven times, “they themselves” six times, and “we ourselves” five times.

Many people think a word is incorrect if it’s not absolutely necessary. Not so. An extra word or two is often justified. We’ve written often on the blog about emphatic redundancy, including posts in 2012, 2008, and 2007.

As for the noun “selfie” in the title of this post, its use in the sense of an uploadable smartphone photo taken of oneself has been traced back to 2002.

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