The referee itself

In Barry Blaustein’s wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, then-WWF supremo Vince McMahon has just given Darren Drozdov his new character name, Puke, and is explaining how he’ll be introduced to the audience. You might want to skip the quotation if you’re eating:

So, after you’ve regurgitated on one of your opponents, or on the referee itself, then of course the ring announcer would, y’know, then say your name.

You can watch it here – go to 06.23:

The phrase the referee itself is grammatically interesting. Wrestling referees are adult people, and when it or itself is used to refer to a person, it’s usually a very young person or a part of a person – not an adult of unknown or unspecified gender.

But none of the alternative pronouns is perfect in that position. The referee himself is the most obvious (the job is male-dominated), but it is sexist; himself or herself (or similar) would be pedantic; themselves strikes me as awkward here, though I like singular they; and themself is rare, and does not occur to most speakers.

So the choice of itself, made on the spur of the moment, lets McMahon avoid constructions that are problematic for various reasons – but in doing so objectifies the referee in an unusual way. (Compare with the use of whom to refer to houses, which I heard in a documentary on The Truman Show.)

Omitting the intensive pronoun entirely would be the simplest solution, since it’s not essential here. But in casual speech we don’t normally get a chance to weigh up options like this. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

6 Responses to The referee itself

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    The “itself” in “the referee itself” isn’t a relative pronoun, since it’s not marking a relative clause. This is typically called an intensive pronoun.

  2. languagehat says:

    I’m confident “themself” will win out, being the obvious extension of singular “they,” so I try to help it along by using it whenever possible. (Surely it’s obvious that it strikes people as awkward simply because it’s unfamiliar, and there’s only one cure for that!)

  3. Stan says:

    Thanks, Ben. I meant reflexive pronoun but that would’ve been wrong too, since they function differently from intensive pronouns. It’s fixed now. Today’s lesson: don’t put posts up in a hurry.

    Hat: Hear, hear. I like themself too, and am always cheered by its appropriate appearance. [Edit:] I wish I had your confidence in its eventual success, though. Singular they is still avoided and maligned by a lot of people despite its obvious advantages and impeccable credentials; themself remains relatively obscure and, I think, is unlikely to achieve much currency until singular they wins over the masses. And even then, people will object to it as intensely as Florence did the last time this came up.

  4. […] A recent post by Stan Carey about the use of itself to refer to a person has made me realise that in my post of 18 July I said nothing about the form themself. […]

  5. blacklimbed says:

    Could it be possible that McMahon just mixed his reflexive pronouns? It would be interesting to see if he uses ‘itself’ like the abovementioned case on a more regular basis.

    My other suggestion could be a dialectical issue. That said, I’m only guessing about this.

    • Stan says:

      Dulach: It’s hard to draw firm conclusions without, as you say, hearing whether the speaker uses personal itself habitually or what his preferences are in comparable contexts. I assume you mean dialectal; this is possible, but I’d say it’s more likely idiolectal or even just a once-off usage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: