Marcus Brattle, my (de)mentee, is at that impressionable, mercurial, protean age where nearly every meeting is a manifestation of some new bent. The latest is hip-hop and dancehall, which sits a bit oddly on his British-accented tongue. At our most recent meeting, as he slouched up to the dining room table in his house wearing an exceedingly baggy T-shirt and idiotically baggy pair of pants, plus a backwards ball cap with – um, yes, I think it indeed is – fake cornrows dangling from it, I had cause to remind myself of the merits of how much his mother is paying me and how good her espresso is.
“Yo yo yo, de Mar-cuss is here.” He flopped down and started rapping through a bit of “Eye Deh A Mi Knee” by Sean Paul: “We keep drilling it and we keep filling it and all this time say we never put a pill in it. The gal them say them love how we still in it, we free willin’ it and we know we can’t stop killin’ it… Ever thrillin’ it, we value and we illin’ it and from we deh ’bout inna them life nothing ill in it…”
“De Mar-cuss has evidently been practising,” I observed drily.
“De Mar-cuss is ill at it. Now he be illin’ it. De Mar-cuss is licensed to ill.”
Cute. A Beastie Boys reference. “De Mar-cuss is certainly a beastly boy,” I said. “He is also become an illeist, I see.”
“De Mar-cuss is de illest!”
“Not illest,” I said. “Illeist. Rhymes with silliest. Resembles it too.” I had a sip of espresso.
Marcus looked at me warily. “Yo, what dat, yo?”
“It’s not yo, and it’s not you. More to the point, it’s not I, it’s he. An illeist is someone who refers to himself – or herself, though guys seem more prone to it in my experience – in the third person. Like Bob Dole, who always said ‘Bob Dole will do this’ and ‘Bob Dole believes that.'”
“Who’s Bob Dole?”
Pause. Mental readjustment on my part. “A guy who ran for president of the US before you were born. Never mind. …It comes from Latin ille, meaning ‘he’. It’s constructed in contrast with egoist, which is formed on ego, meaning ‘I’. It’s a bit ironic, because illeists tend to be egoists, I find.”
“Yo, it sounds important. It sounds famous.”
“It sounds like Bucky Katt from the comic strip Get Fuzzy.”
“I actually like that Latin word ille, though,” I said. “The shape of it makes me think of my hair standing on end when I hear an illeist. And if you say it in the proper Latin way, it has a luscious double l – ‘eel lay’.”
“An eel lay? Oh, that’s ill, man.”
“Well, never mind, in English it’s said like ‘illy’.” I knocked back the rest of my espresso.
Marcus smirked. “I have news for you,” he said, back in his usual dialect. “I’m not the illeist. You are.”
I cocked my head skeptically. “How so?”
“That espresso of which you’re so fond. What brand did you think it is?” He gestured towards the kitchen, wherein I could see a can of Illy espresso. “That makes you the Illy-ist.” He launched into a bit of the Beastie Boys: “But I’m chiller with the Miller – cold coolin’ at the bar. I can drink a quart of Monkey and still stand still. What’s the time? – it’s time to get ill.”
I stared at my empty cup. “It is indeed.”