Mark Liberman at Language Log investigated recent claims that Barack Obama and Sarah Palin overuse first-person pronouns. Using a counting script he developed, Liberman found that Obama used the word 'I' far less than George W. Bush did in a comparison of first inaugural addresses and first press conferences. Comparing Sarah Palin's resignation speech with other major resignation and concession speeches, Liberman found only "equivocal" evidence for the claim of excessive first-person pronoun usage.
These erroneous claims about first-person pronoun usage were intended to support arguments that both politicians are unusually narcissistic, egocentric or excessively self-involved, but I am extremely skeptical of the notion that frequency of first-person pronoun use is anything more than a weak indicator of egocentricity. A far more interesting claim about the narcissist's use of language comes from Mardi Horowitz (1).
Horowitz says that narcissists rely on a defense he has termed "sliding of meanings." Within the context of narcissism, sliding of meaning refers to defensive remolding of linguistic meaning to preserve the narcissist's primitive sense of perfection. In layman's terms, the narcissist can never admit to being wrong or deficient in any significant way, so he or she plays weaselly word games that destroy logical coherence.
This defensive maneuver can be maddening for anyone dealing with a narcissist, but the narcissist doesn't slide meanings merely as a device to deceive others. For the narcissist, sliding of meanings is an emotionally necessary and habitual form of self-deception.
In an excellent paper on the relational manifestations of narcissism, Nancy McWilliams and Stanley Leppendorf discuss the implications of the narcissist's paramount need to protect an internal sense of grandiosity. The authors explain why the narcissist finds it difficult to apologize, show gratitude, admit error and experience or show need. Each of these behaviors would amount to an admission of an intolerable personal deficiency. McWilliams and Leppendorf also comment on the experience of the person who is chronically subject to the defensive maneuvers of the narcissist. As one of their patients describes it, the narcissist leaves you feeling "mind-fucked."
We have put particular emphasis on the psychological encumbrance borne by the objects of essentially narcissistic transactions, whose usual response to the prolonged substitution of other behaviors for expressions of sorrow and thanks includes confusion, self-criticism, loneliness, and diffuse irritation - an overall sense of having been, as one of our patients put it. "mind-fucked." The state of confusion induced by narcissistic defenses may say something about why it took so many years for psychoanalysts to develop a rich and specific literature about narcissism, comparable to that on the more "classical" psychopathologies.
McWilliams and Leppendorf do not specifically discuss sliding of meaning, but this defense is consistent with other defenses they describe--all of them aimed at preserving the narcissist's sense of grandiosity. The McWilliams and Leppendorf article is a great read, so I'd recommend checking it out if you're at all interested in this subject. Fortunately, the entire article is online and available for free. I posted a link to this article once before, but it's well worth a repost.
1. Horowitz M. J. Sliding Meanings: A Defence against Threat in Narcissistic Personalities. International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 1975; 4:167.