On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*
Ourself, once in regular use, is now scarce outside of certain dialects, and many (maybe most) people would question its validity. I’ve seen it followed by a cautious editorial [sic] even in linguistic contexts. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), describing it as the reflexive form of singular we – ‘an honorific pronoun used by monarchs, popes, and the like’ – says it is ‘hardly current’ in present-day English.
But that’s not the whole story, and it belies the word’s surprising versatility and stubborn survival outside of mainstream Englishes, which this post will outline. There are graphs and data further down, but let’s start with usage.
Ourself can be singular or plural, reflexive or emphatic. As well as the royal/editorial ourself, it’s also used as a nonstandard form of ourselves. It can replace nominative we:
Ourself will mingle with society (Shakespeare, Macbeth)
and accusative us:
Soon for the safety of ourself and state
The anthem shall arise. (James Lawson, Giordano)
And it can function in apposition to either:
The case is not a peculiar one, as we ourself can testify (Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers)
What touches us ourself shall be last served. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
Ourself appears in most major or popular dictionaries, sometimes with one sense – Collins; Macmillan – sometimes two: Merriam-Webster; American Heritage Dictionary; Lexico.com; Dictionary.com; Wiktionary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes ourself as:
Originally frequently a plural, but now almost exclusively singular, referring either collectively to people in general or to an individual normally referred to by we and us; in both cases, now chiefly literary.
Lexico, a Dictionary.com–OUP project, labels the royal ourself as ‘archaic’ and adds a usage note:
The standard reflexive form corresponding to we and us is ourselves, as in we can blame only ourselves. The singular form ourself, first recorded in the 14th century, is sometimes used in modern English, typically where we refers to people in general. This use, though logical, is uncommon and not widely accepted in standard English.
The American Heritage Dictionary’s (AHD) usage notes are informed by a large panel of experts and can be of particular interest. Its note on hisself shows how dialects often regularize irregularities in standardized English; hisself fits the myself, yourself pattern better than himself does:†
A further regularization is the use of -self regardless of number, yielding the forms ourself and theirself. Using a singular form in a plural context may seem imprecise, but the plural meaning of ourself and theirself is made clear by the presence of the plural forms our- and their-.
Or indeed by context. For well-regarded dictionaries to characterize ourself as ‘logical’ and ‘clear’ is notable given the tendency among critics to rankle at the fusing of ostensibly plural our to singular self. Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) – unusual among such guides in addressing the word – finds it ‘technically ill formed’, while acknowledging that it’s established in the ‘editorial or royal style’.
In the same entry, Garner calls theirself for themselves ‘indefensible’, brusquely dismissing a legitimate dialectal variant. Compare this with the descriptive treatment in Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian’s Appalachian Speech (1976):
Like most varieties of non-mainstream English in both the North and South, AE [Appalachian English] may add the form self to all personal pronouns. This is different from standard English, where first and second person are formed with the possessive pronoun (i.e. myself, yourself, ourselves, yourselves), but the third person reflexives are with the accusative form (i.e. himself, herself, itself, themselves). In AE, the possessive form is simply extended to third person reflexive forms resulting in forms such as hisself (e.g. A man hung hisself, If he’d shot hisself) and theirselves or theirself (e.g. They doctored them theirself; out in the wild theirself). It is noted that theirself is preferred over theirselves, so that a distinction between the singular form self and the plural form selves may not be operative with reflexives. (By the same token, forms like ourselves and yourselves may be ourself and yourself.) AE is unlike some other varieties of southern origin in that theyself does not typically occur as an alternant for theirself.
That book’s epigraph, ‘Everybody lives in the mountains has an accent all to theirself’, is as syntactically economical as it is geographically expansive. (It also contains a subject contact clause, another old grammatical feature that is currently disfavoured in standardized English but prevails in other varieties, including my own Irish English.)
Take a diachronic view: You was once plural only and raised hackles when it gained singular use. Ourself, theirself, and themself are ultimately no more objectionable than yourself is: we’ve just fully habituated to singular you, having incorporated it into the prestige dialect. ‘Technically ill formed’, moreover, could be said of the entire grand mess that is English, but the charge has no bearing on utility, efficiency, or expressivity.
It’s easy to forget, given standardized English’s social stature and relative rigidity, that language is ours to fashion as we will. It is vast and stretchy and in constant gradual flux at all levels. We shape it into countless regional varieties, each internally grammatical and appropriate to its users’ needs. To disparage a feature like theirself as ‘indefensible’ is not even wrong.
Commentary on ourself in other usage dictionaries is largely absent, reflecting its now-marginal existence. There are no entries in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (full, concise, and pocket editions), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Fowler, Gowers, and Burchfield editions), the Cambridge Guide to English Usage, the Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage, or the half-dozen smaller reference works that I checked.
Yet it has a long and respectable history. Ourself originated in the 14th century as an alteration of us self, which occurred (variously spelled) in Old English. Indeed, according to the OED, ourselves did not appear until the Tyndale Bible in 1526, and derived from ourself (as themselves came from themself), though other pronouns may also have played a part.
Because ourself existed long before English spelling was standardized, it took a multitude of written forms:
howreselfe, howrselfe, oure seelf, oure self, oureselfe, oure silf, oure silfe, ouresilffe, ouriself, our selue, ourselue, oursilf, owre selff, owr self, owrselff, vrself, ourselve, oureself, ourselfe, our selfe, our self, ourself, ourse’f.
That’s not counting the versions with some form of ‘selfen’ (oure selfen, oure seluen, oureseluen, oure seluyn, oure selvene, ourseluen, ourseluin, vrseluen, our seluyn, ourseln) (‘As we may alday oureselven see’ —Chaucer) or Scottish ‘oor’ and ‘sel(l)’ (‘That e’er he nearer comes oursel / ’S a muckle pity’ —Robert Burns). Original OED editor James Murray wrote that ‘in modern South Scottish oursel is collective, oursels is individual’, and the 1965 Scottish National Dictionary said this applies to most parts of Scotland.
Dictionaries of the Scots Language has an entry for our-self in its Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700), with abundant quotations showing the now-familiar range of usage: singular and plural, emphatic and reflexive, in apposition to we and us. There’s also an 1833 citation for gear ‘equip’ that includes ourself (‘We accordingly geared ourself, and, switch in hand … sallied out’).
The Google Books corpus shows heavy and more or less parallel decline in the use of ourself over the last couple of centuries in British English (corpus: 34 billion words) (click to embiggen):
and American English (corpus: 155 billion words):
For a breakdown by genre, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) (1 billion words, 1990–2019) shows ourself used predominantly in informal registers – speech, TV and film, blogs – and relatively little in more edited contexts like fiction, journalism, and academic prose (just 6 instances in 120 million scholarly words):
Of the 1,500+ examples in the 14.7-billion-word News on the Web (NOW) Corpus, many are in quoted speech, indicating its currency in people’s natural expression. Screenwriters have followed suit, putting it in dialogue in films (My Own Private Idaho: ‘We can do this ourself’) and TV shows (Dallas: ‘I’m not going to let us lower ourself any further’).
The word’s connotations of unified humanity or multiplicity of self have led writers and editors of a spiritual or collective bent to foreground it in their works. Women’s anthology Song of Ourself ‘traces the transformation from the individuality of “myself” to the reciprocity of “ourself” ’, while Ty Clement’s Being Ourself says we are blind to ‘life’s innate wholeness’ and adopts ourself for its ‘inherently inclusive nature’.
Ourself shows up in Englishes around the world. The 1.9-billion-word Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE) has dozens of examples from the Englishes of the UK, US, India, Pakistan, Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Nigeria, Ireland, Singapore, Jamaica, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka, for starters – solid testament to its widespread and enduring niche utility.
And though the word’s frequency has diminished greatly, the OED’s citations show ourself in continual respectable use for over six centuries. Some examples:
If we shulen seie, for we han not synne, we oure silf deceyuen us (Wycliffite Bible, early version, c.1384)
For we oure self ben cause of this meschyef. (William Caxton, translator, Here begynneth the book of the subtyl historyes and fables of Esope, 1484)
Our selfe and Bushie
Obserued his courtship to the common people. (William Shakespeare, Richard II, 1597)
Towards that rash Prince, my Lords, we doubt
Not to approve our self a Friend and Brother. (Mary Pix, Queen Catharine, 1698)
Ourself will Swiftness to your Nerves impart,
Ourself with rising Spirits swell your Heart. (Alexander Pope, translator, The Iliad of Homer, 1720)
We, from the mere force of habit, found ourself running among the first. (Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836)
Were you sick, ourself
Would tend upon you. (Alfred Tennyson, The Princess, 1850)
One of the proudest and pleasantest sensations of our ministry has been that of being a predecessor ourself. (Winifred Margaretta Kirkland, The Joys of Being a Woman, 1918)
I think we had better restrict ourself to the legal sense. (J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace, 2000)
The one person who will never leave us, whom we will never lose, is ourself. (bell hooks, Communion, 2002)
It’s not a word I see often in my day-to-day reading, but I noticed a few instances in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living (1990):
To treat ourself with as much kindness as we would another person in pain is a wonderfully healing meditation in its own right.
… we invite our thoughts and feelings, our likes and dislikes, our concepts about ourself and the world, our ideas and opinions, even our name, into the field of awareness and we intentionally let go of them as well.
Since gravity is always affecting us, we tend not to notice it. We are hardly aware of how we adapt to it by shifting the body from one leg to the other in the standing posture or by propping ourself up against a wall.
If you think some of these could be replaced by the more ‘proper’ ourselves or our self, you’re right. If you think they should, maybe analyze that reaction. Consider what lies behind the urge to universalize your preferences, to reject a word as ‘unnecessary’, to curtail people’s choice of whatever terms they find suited to their expressive wishes. What matter if a usage is unorthodox, so long as communication is unimpeded?
Novelty and variety born of personal style and sensibility help keep a language alive and healthy. Standardized English is not a monolith or a holy creed but a shifting agglomeration of forms that change from one population and one generation to the next. They change in part because our attitudes change, and because the edges of permissibility are fuzzy, porous, and mutable enough to allow for drift.
Outside of standardized English, in the great bulk of everyday exchange in the language, we are freer still to choose and use whatever words, phrases, constructions, and embellishments we want. Maybe you were taught that using language means obeying the rules. You may not have been taught that all of us together make the rules, and we ourself can bend and change them too.
† Irish English amn’t is another more regular nonstandard form.