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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | militarese | “buddy,” “sidekick,” “ally”)

Once upon a time this word was entirely serious. In the context of military aviation, the wingman is terribly important — the pilot of another plane just off to the side and behind the lead, an essential member of the group who might well save the lead pilot’s ass. In that sense, it goes back to the 1940’s, albeit as two words, according to the OED. By my childhood, the word also had a very specific use in sportswriting — think basketball, hockey, soccer — where it designated a position. Up until 2000 or so, that was about it, as far as LexisNexis is concerned. Many on-line sources point to the 1996 movie “Swingers” as the event that pushed the word into our vocabulary, but there’s no sign of it in LexisNexis, and the word does not appear in either of the scripts I found on-line, not that I trust them particularly. (What, you want me to sit down and watch a whole movie?) Anyway, by 2010 a new meaning was established, one for which there was no precise equivalent in the old days. The predatory male conspires with another man, who is pledged to aid and abet the aforementioned predatory male in picking up a woman (at a bar, for example). There are different ways to do that, of course, but most definitions agree that the wingman is there mainly to a) soak up the quarry’s unattached friend, who probably isn’t very attractive, and b) talk up the predatory male when he steps away in order to impress the quarry with the p.m.’s heroism and humility. Like a designated driver, the wingman is expected to forgo his own satisfaction for the night for the benefit of those around him. It is a sacrificial role, for which he generally expects some sort of compensation.

The modern conception doesn’t seem like much of a departure from the older sense. In either case, it’s a tight bond between two men, one of whom watches out for the other as he faces the enemy — er, uh, I mean the nice young lady — bravely and unflinchingly. As metaphors go, it’s pretty straightforward. The female equivalent, “wingwoman,” who can work with either another woman or a man, is starting to turn up; “winger” may become a unisex term. The verb seems to be “to wing,” which has nothing to do with winging it, much less flying by the seat of your pants. In politics, “wingman” also refers to a myrmidon of some kind, whether a fundraiser or a fellow legislator who runs interference. Occasionally it is used more fancifully still, as in a blogger referring to a digital camera feature as a “wingman,” automatically correcting your photographic mistakes.

Wingmen turn up a lot in movies and television; two characters open up many more possibilities. I’m pretty sure there was a Happy Days episode in which the Fonz observed Richie trying to impress a girl, offering sotto voce advice or critique when the girl visited the powder room, as girls must always do, at least in fiction. It would not have occurred to anyone in 1975 (much less in the 1950’s) to call Fonzie a “wingman.” Now we have a word for it. Who says civilization doesn’t advance? In “The Blue and the Gray,” Homer Simpson serves as Moe’s wingman. It seems like every few months there’s another buddy movie in which one man helps another pick up women. The new movie, “The Wedding Ringer,” ratchets it up several notches: Kevin Hart’s character hires himself out to prospective grooms who can’t generate their own wedding party — the wingman gets promoted to best man. An extreme twist, but still not quite in John Alden’s league. In real life, the wingman isn’t a paid employee, but that’s what screenwriters are for.


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