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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

man up

(2000’s | athletese | “be tough,” “take it like a man,” “do your duty,” “rise to the occasion”)

Here’s one more word that politicians have made ubiquitous, but its athletic origin is pretty well established. In an excellent column on the origin and development of the term, Ben Zimmer points to “cowboy up” (from rodeo slang) and “man up” from football and basketball. The rodeo term means “take punishment and keep going,” but “man up” is a little more technical, meaning “play man-to-man defense” or maybe “guard your man closely.” In these senses it was also common among athletes in Great Britain and Australia. Before the sports usages, “man up” meant “increase manpower” — hire more personnel to meet demand in an industry.

In October 2010, it got a big boost when it cropped up several times during political debates. (Zimmer’s column had appeared in September — is this another case of the baleful influence of the mainstream media?) Sarah Palin challenged the Republican establishment to “man up” and embrace the Tea Party. Sharron Angle of Nevada told Harry Reid to “man up” and admit that Social Security is going broke. Kendrick Meek of Florida used it against Charlie Crist during the governors’ race; then he used “leader up” in the same sentence for good measure. (Meek also gets credit for one of the earliest uses I found among politicians, from 2002: “The governor [Jeb Bush] needs to ‘man up’ and come out and say he’s against it.”)

The angles of the phrase remain to be explored. First, it always goes with a touch of contempt. “Man up” means “you’re not manly enough,” in whatever direction that might be. And there are several. “Man up” means “do what a man’s gotta do,” but what exactly? It means “beat the crap out of that guy” or “keep your woman in her place” or “don’t let on that you’re hurting” or “accept your punishment and make amends” or “admit that you’re wrong” or “meet your obligations” or “do the honorable thing” or “be a mensch.” There are as many definitions as opinions about how men ought to behave, and that terrain has become vexed indeed in the last fifty years.

I hear behind “man up” two older phrasal verbs that I think have influenced its rise: “suck it up” and “own up.” Then there’s one expression I don’t hear but might have had an effect: that old athletes’ euphemistic standby for God, “the Man Upstairs.”

Finally: The “noun + up = verb” construction may be on the verge of becoming a phenomenon. I’ve seen “lawyer up” (get legal advice, especially high-powered legal advice) and even “luck up” (get lucky) once. Only today I saw “neighbor up” on a subway ad. Zimmer mentions a few other examples. This could be a quick-burning fad or it could spread — for the moment, it’s still on the cusp, but that will change. Other examples? “Suit up” and “gum up” have been around for a while (thanks, Liz!). “Ramp up” might be one, but I’m not sure. You might hear “camp up,” but that would normally be transitive: a director might say to the cast, “Let’s really camp this scene up.” “Juice up” sounds to me like “juice” is really being used as a verb, like “power up.” I’m not sure about “pony up.”


(1990’s | enginese | “(make a) minor adjustment”)

This word has meant “pinch” for a long time, and it often meant something stronger: grab and twist violently. When Hamlet, in one of the earliest recorded uses, says “[he] tweaks me by the nose,” it’s no playful pinch. The tweak is intended to be not only painful but humiliating.

The word has added a new figurative meaning every so often. “Prostitute” came in soon after the first recorded uses but was out-of-date by the eighteenth century. “In a tweak” meant “agitated” or “excited.” When I was a lad, “tweak” meant something like “needle” (v.) or “offend slightly” (cf. “twit” in British English); your sensibilities or your amour-propre might be tweaked, but not your procedure for cleaning the garage. The word crept into larger discussions; there was much talk of the superpowers “tweaking” each other, deploying troops somewhere, concluding a mutual defense treaty with a third country, or otherwise making pests of themselves. The violence had leached out of the word, but a tweak remained an irritant; it was aggravating and provocative, whether you were brazenly twisting someone’s nose or getting in a subtle dig.

Today’s meaning seems to have originated among mechanics and engineers with the sense of a small, quick change to a control or a setting (like the gas pedal or the temperature in a chemical reaction), which lies suspiciously close to “twitch.” (Another ancestor was “tweaking” an engine, or part of an engine, meaning something like “getting a little extra out of it.”) I have a notion that “twitch” helped pave the way for its rise among engineers. While I’m making things up, here’s the other half of it: “tweak” took root as a word specifically denoting a small or minor change owing merely to its resemblance to “weak” or “squeak,” engineering types not being noted for their grasp of linguistic subtleties but showing the odd flash of Joycean creativity.

“Tweak” has shed the last vestiges of its old trappings. That sense of irritation and provocation is gone — it refers now to almost any kind of minor adjustment, and it can be comfortably used with more abstract objects, like a computer program, a speech, or even an attitude. It’s certainly a lot easier to say “We tweaked the regulations” than “We made a minor adjustment in the regulations.” But it has lost its magnitude as well as its power to vex. “Tweak” today is a small word for a small thing. Once it was an affront, an insult, fightin’ words. Now it’s just a quick fix, you’ll never notice, there! we’re done. I’ll bet it’s because it sounded like a couple of more common words — only one of which it’s actually related to — and took on their coloration through semantic slippage and devolution, the destruction of longstanding distinctions through ignorance or carelessness.


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