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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

alpha male

(1980’s | academese | “leader of the pack,” “take-charge guy,” “macho man,” “dominant male”)

This expression takes advantage of the fact that we are animals and there is something very satisfying about showing direct analogies between human and animal behavior. “Alpha male,” along with “alpha female,” goes back at least to the sixties (the thirties, says William Safire), used first to talk about pack animals, especially wolves and primates. Explanations of social organization generally centered on the the top dog (or whatever), who made all the decisions, got the females he wanted, and scared his inferiors into submission. The typical alpha male had won his place by defeating, perhaps even killing, the previous alpha male; in those days, it was understood purely as a matter of physical domination. The phrase seems to have been applied to humans first in the eighties, generally meaning some combination of “leader,” “the one who gives orders,” and “the one who gets his way.” Sometimes brawn and aggressiveness alone defined the human alpha male, but more often it was a matter of wielding power over others through sexual attractiveness, overweening wealth, political clout. Not infrequently the phrase is used as a straight synonym for a man who has a lot of sex with a lot of women. In the nineties, the phrase was used sometimes of Bill Clinton, apparently reflecting both his executive primacy and his prowess. In 1999, Al Gore hired Naomi Wolf as an advisor, whose role was widely reported at the time as teaching Gore to be an “alpha male,” though Wolf denied that’s what she was actually doing. Anyway, use of the phrase went up sharply in 1999, according to LexisNexis, and that increase appears to be permanent.

All these meanings remain in play today. I even found a nice new one, courtesy of a senior editor at Harlequin Romances: “Werewolf and vampire heroes are examples of the alpha male, strong and protective.” I assure you that in the old days, no one ever called an alpha male “protective.” But the term has also acquired a negative tinge, or at least the possibility of one. Two examples from 2009: sportswriter Francis X. Clines of the New York Times referred to obnoxious football fans as “alpha male bellowers.” Professor Robert Sapolsky alluded to “‘totally insane son of a bitch'” types, the sort of alpha males “who respond to stress by lashing out.” These are not just admissions that alpha male behavior might alienate people now and then; they are twists on the term that provide a new field of connotation. The idea that an alpha male exerted anything less than total authority in his field, or had anything to apologize for, was almost unknown as late as 2000 — it was nearly always a term of admiration or envy. Urban Dictionary offers several examples of sardonic or derogatory definitions of the term, though in fairness, most of them have not been treated well by voters. “Alpha male” may be developing the same double life as “type-A personality” (or “control freak“), which might be used as a compliment but generally is not. As beta males conspire to get their slow revenge on the alphas, more such heretical definitions may creep into the language. Among humans as among animals, a group of lesser men acting in concert can bring down the most potent head man. Julius Caesar went from “he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” to “Then fall, Caesar!” in two short acts.

If the expression continues to take on darker meanings, it will mirror the decline in primatology and other disciplines of the whole notion of alpha males lording it over their enclaves. Frans de Waal and L. David Mech, among others, have moved away from descriptions of social organization dependent on such rigid hierarchies. The very concept of the “alpha male” has little to do with the politics of group behavior among animals and crudely oversimplifies the ways they organize themselves. The idea probably was born more of the predilections of mid-century researchers, and a general urge to find easy explanations of complicated phenomena, than actual observations of wild animals. (In fact, many early studies used captive animals, who behave much differently from their counterparts in the wild.) It may well prove that the alpha male today, like the social Darwinist a century earlier, is no more than a pseudo-natural mandate for the most selfish and sociopathic among us to justify their promiscuous, arrogant, or exploitative desires. For now, “alpha male” still retains much of its old shine, but that may change in the next ten or twenty years.

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