The verb identify is common in everyday speech today, but in what seems to be a somewhat new usage. It has been so recent, in fact, that I haven’t been able to find anyone writing on this, so this is just my speculation.
People identify as male or female, gay or straight. They identify as Republican or Democrat. They identify as evangelical, agnostic, or atheist. This way of speaking has become familiar to all of us who keep up with current political controversies.
The word identify has been in use since at least 1626, though with a slightly different meaning from what we have today (It meant to regard or treat as identical). The word having to do with description or categorization dates back to 1675. In this usage it is always transitive, meaning the verb requires an object. In other words, you always identify something, you don’t simply identify. You might identify a constellation, a species of insect, or a suspect in a criminal lineup.
The more recent use is intransitive. You don’t identify something, you identify as something. This got me wondering if identify is actually a phrasal verb. But it’s not. The words work separately as verb and preposition, not as a combination with a distinct meaning.
Identify with, on the other hand does seem to function as a phrasal verb that first appeared, according to the OED, in 1831. It means to sympathize or to share interests or feelings. If you add with to identify, you’ve got a whole new verb. That’s what a phrasal verb is.
Also according to the OED online, the first appearance of identify as was in a psychological journal in 1975 and in the precise context we use it today: “If designated female and raised as female, the child will identify as female.” Note that this use is intransitive–no direct object.
Identify has a history of reflexive use going back to at least 1718. People have often said things like, “He identified himself as the President of the organization.” or “We identified ourselves as visitors.” Isn’t the current use of identify as simply an ellipsis where we drop the reflexive pronoun? In other words, isn’t it the same thing to say, “Tom identifies himself as a plumber” and “Tom identifies as a plumber”?
I argue that it’s not precisely the same. To identify oneself seems to emphasize the action one takes to identify oneself. It’s an overt action. To merely identify seems to have more to do with a mental conception of oneself. It’s about how one views oneself, not necessarily how one talks about oneself.
Also, identify as is intrinsically tied up with the current idea of identity politics. You can’t really avoid this implication. If I identify as gay, straight, male, female, conservative or progressive, I am making a kind of political or culturally relevant statement. To identify as in today’s parlance means connecting oneself to a particular group and it often suggests that membership in said group wouldn’t be obvious to others. It would be odd, for example for me to say I “identify as” male, since I am obviously genetically male.
In order to get a grasp of the rising popularity of the phrase identify as, I searched on Google’s Ngram viewer. The problem, of course, with this kind of search, is that it doesn’t factor in context. Since the OED only dates the relevant definition of identify as to 1975, we have to assume that the fact that the graph shows use all the way back to the late 1800s indicates a different meaning or just a coincidental juxtaposition of the two words. But notice that in the late 1970s, identify as became more common than identify with in publication. And it has continued to grow in usage. I sure wish the N-gram data went past 2000. I would guess there would be a jump in recent years.
I am not making a judgment on this new use, by the way. I’m just intrigued by the continual evolution of our language and this example seems particularly relevant.
I’d love to hear your perspective. Leave your comments below.