Words & Stuff

t: Twiddling While Rome Burns

(18 May 1997)

It was sometime in the spring of 1990. We were sitting in a van, riding back to our dorm, when Karen suddenly said, "Have you ever twiddled somebody else's thumbs?" We tried it; it worked about as well as twiddling one's own thumbs. Someone said "He twiddled her thumbs," which besides not being the usual phrase sounds like some sort of euphemism. And I started wondering what other reflexive sentences (that is, sentences in which someone does something to taself, or to something belonging to taself) could undergo that sort of pronoun switch for comic effect. Having seen the example of stormy petrels, I realized that what I really needed to make the idea catch on was a catchy name for the category; I decided to call such sentences "twiddlers."

We quickly found that many items don't work as twiddlers. You can transform "He hit his own thumb with a hammer" into "He hit her own thumb with a hammer," but the new sentence isn't grammatical. Similarly, "She hit herself with a hammer" becomes "She hit himself with a hammer," also ungrammatical. An action that can be performed non-reflexively (on someone else) requires "own" or "-self." But an action that can only be performed reflexively doesn't use "-self" or "own," and can therefore be subjected to this transformation and remain grammatical. Many such phrases are funny when taken at face value. (Some of them are funny if taken in the idiomatic sense, and even funnier if taken literally.) For instance:

Pronoun-replacement therapy in sentences that use pronouns other than "he" and "she" doesn't usually work too well:

And attempting to go in the other direction, switching the pronoun in a non-reflexive phrase, usually just appears to imply another participant of the same gender:

(Of course, actually making these items reflexive would require adding "-self" or "own.")

I've been collecting twiddlers on and off for years; if you have any to add to the list, send 'em my way. (By the way, some of the items on the list are kind of disgusting if you think about them too much. Be warned.)

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>