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A friend of mine was telling me a story about one of their colleagues and they said the following sentence: "Mike called himself cleaning up the lunch table, but he left spaghetti sauce streaked all over the place." I didn't understand at the time though that this is just a way of referring to a third party doing some act that resulted in the opposite of their original intentions.

The question I have is regarding the use of "called himself" and where that comes from, the etymology, etc. etc. and if there is a place I can look to learn about this type of... strange... sentence pattern?

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I actually have no idea what that sentence means. What happened? Was Mike claiming that he did something but others noticed it was done poorly? –  MrHen Mar 21 '11 at 18:21
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This might be a regionalism; where did your colleague come from? I certainly haven't met it in British English. –  user1579 Mar 21 '11 at 18:28
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I've never heard this either. My first guess was that you misheard, and called himself should have been caught himself, but that doesn't make any sense, either. –  JSBձոգչ Mar 21 '11 at 18:39
    
@JSBangs: It could be Mike caught himself cleaning up the lunch table (suddenly realized he was doing it again, even though he'd sworn he'd never do it again this month); but then the rest of the sentence would be unrelated. Perhaps more context could shed some light on the the situation. –  Cerberus Mar 21 '11 at 21:50
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3 Answers

I don't have any info on the etymology but I can cast a little extra light on the meaning, I think: This usage of "call" is equivalent to "claim", as in the phrase "I call shotgun!" which means "I claim the front passenger seat" (see wikipedia entry on "riding shotgun" for some details). Alternatively, Mike "called it for himself", in much the way that "the umpire called the the match in favor of someone"; he declared himself the victor in the competition of "who gets to clean up the table?" Your friend's construction, "called himself (the task)", is equivalent to that, although I'd say it's unusual and should probably be avoided as a colloquialism.

So your friend is saying that Mike specifically claimed the task of cleaning up the table and then did a lousy job of it.

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Is this just a guess/hunch? Why would the phrase include "himself"? Wouldn't it be: "Mike called cleaning up the table..." –  MrHen Mar 21 '11 at 19:01
    
I agree that the "himself" is nonstandard and unnecessary. And yes, insofar as I wasn't there and I wasn't the speaker of the phrase in question, I am only making an educated guess at his intended meaning; however, as a well-educated and reasonably well-versed native speaker, I happen to believe that my educated guess holds some weight. :-) –  Hellion Mar 21 '11 at 19:26
    
Oh, sure, I am not contending your point. I was just curious if there was more to it I didn't see. Your guess is better than anything I found. –  MrHen Mar 21 '11 at 19:30
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Speaking as a Brit I have never heard anyone use this grammatical construct. I think that it's incorrect.

It would be improved massively (if by "call" you mean "took command over") if you removed the word "himself".

"Mike called cleaning up the lunch table, but he left spaghetti sauce streaked all over the place."

However its still a bit clunky. I still have a bit of difficulty with parsing this sentence as at the point of "called" one expects it to be a vocal cry as opposed to "taking responsibility for".

I'd suggest your friend replaces it with: "took charge". Resulting in a much simpler sentence:

"Mike took charge of cleaning up the lunch table, but he left spaghetti sauce streaked all over the place."

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You should consider this called himself phrasing nonstandard and not expect to use it, or perhaps ever hear it again. I think it was just awkward phrasing as the words tumbled out.

I would interpret the meaning as parallel to Mike thought himself cleaning up the lunch table, but... (which means Mike thought he was cleaning up the lunch table, but...). Using the verb called instead of thought suggests that Mike actually stated out loud his thought, as if a dialog like this had taken place at the scene:

Observer: What do you think you were just doing?

Mike: Huh? I was cleaning up the lunch table.

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