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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: beer

man cave

(2000’s | advertese | “den”)

The evidence strongly suggests that man-caves are the creation of marketers, despite visible traces of the expression before the mid-aughts, which is when it starts turning up in bulk in LexisNexis. The phrasing likely owes a debt to the author of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” (1992), John Gray. While he did not, as far as I can tell, ever use “man cave” himself, he used the two words in close proximity, notably in the apothegms “Never go into a man’s cave or you will be burned by the dragon!” and “Much unnecessary conflict has resulted from a woman following a man into his cave.” In other words, let the old grouch suck his thumb and fiddle with his TV or his train set for a while. He’ll come out and make nice eventually. And if he doesn’t, it’ll be your fault. Gray’s biases aside, he was influential, and today’s more compact phrasing may claim his as an ancestor. Actually, the first use I found in LexisNexis is not due to Gray but to a Canadian columnist writing about house floorplans; she proposed that the basement be renamed “man cave,” because that is where men go to get away from their women. (She had in mind a damp, cobwebbed basement, not a home entertainment center. “Cave” is the French word for basement, so the use of “cave” is more intuitive in Canada than here.) Was author Joanne Lovering an early adopter or ahead of the curve? (Or ahead of the cave!)

But when “man cave” started showing up in quantity, it was purveyed by Maytag, of all corporations, which marketed a product called SkyBox, a vending machine for soda or beer that you could install right in your very own home. Fred Lowery, the director of Maytag’s “strategic initiatives group,” noted that “every guy would like to carve out his own little place in his home. Internally, we call it the man cave. And lots of guys, at some point, would like a vending machine in their man cave” (January 29, 2004). There you have it. Very soon, real estate agents began touting the things, sports promoters jumped on board, and it became a proper fad. No man cave was complete without a big-screen television and a sofa — video game consoles and sports-related items also popular — and if not your very own vending machine, at least a dorm refrigerator, maybe even a full bar. What you won’t find is a workbench. The man’s retreat in my youth was likely to involve tools and at least the possibility of repair or construction. A few men still favor that, but these days it’s more about swilling beer while endless hours of sports unroll before your glazed eyes. Well, not really; what it’s really about is male bonding or just having a place to get away from your woman. The corresponding “woman cave” has not made much headway, a few sightings in the press notwithstanding, but all the ladies have to do is wait; sooner or later some savvy marketer will attract huge sums convincing women they need their own gender-specific refuges.

“Cave” is an interesting word to use here; to my mind it calls up two different associations. First, of course, the caveman: brutal and self-reliant (actually, cavemen were much less self-reliant than we are). Primitive, crude, and therefore manly, the caveman lords it over his woman and slays giant beasts. Just what we all want to be, right? The second association with “cave” is a dangerous, unpleasant place where no sensible woman would set foot to begin with. They’re dark and treacherous, lairs of wild animals, drifters, or lunatics. Of course, that’s what he wants you to think, ladies. He has a giant-screen TV in there — how dangerous can it be? Just don’t get burned.

Why has “man” become such a common prefix in compound nouns since the dawn of the new millennium? Nobody says “man about town” or “man alive!” any more, but you can’t get away from “man-hug,” “man-bun,” “man-boobs.” “Man cave” predates some of these, though “man-boobs” dates back to 2003, according to Urban Dictionary. Is it a simple matter of dumbing down, the word “male” having become too complicated for us cavemen? Is it a wistful attempt to recover a lost sense of masculinity by reverting to the simpler (and therefore more primitive) term? Is it an attempt to express solidarity? “Man-splaining” and “man-spreading” go the other way, of course, used by women in solidarity, not men.


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Joe Sixpack

(early 1990’s | advertese?, journalese? | “John Q. Public,” “the average joe or American,” “working stiff,” “man in the street”)

The mythical yet representative Homo sapiens (sub-species Americanus) may have been born in the febrile brain of an anonymous ad man. If it was, he was probably thinking of his brewery client and ginning up a word to refer to the average beer purchaser, probably with a snicker or sneer. Neither Google Books nor LexisNexis yields any citations before 1977 or so, and some of the earliest ones do have to do with beer advertising. Forbes magazine (1978) offered this commentary: “Anheuser had always concentrated its marketing fire on Joe Sixpack: male, a heavy beer-user, blue collar.” William Safire helped cement that link with this taxonomy (December 19, 1982): “Thus, today we have John Q. Public wearing respectable spectacles; Joe Sixpack is sitting in his undershirt looking like Archie Bunker.” But even that early, the phrase could be used in a less loaded way. The use of the phrase spread in the 1980’s, but the number of hits returned by LexisNexis doesn’t go up sharply until after 1990. As early as the mid-1980’s, LexisNexis found uses of the phrase in major foreign publications in French, Italian, German, and English, suggesting that the name appealed to the rest of the world as a colorful, evocative, and none too flattering personification of Americans.

Politicians soon picked this one up, I’m afraid, and so did their journalist camp followers. The expression was invented and perpetuated by elites, in other words, the advertisers and elected officials who tell us what to wear and what to think. So here was a term for “average joe” that came from those who get rich by manipulating average joes one way and another. Now politicians must walk a fine line, as every schoolboy knows. In terms of status and power, they travel in circles far above the vast majority of their constituents, even in the wealthiest districts. A certain amount of talking down is necessary, and you can’t be too obvious about it. Politicians often use “Joe Sixpack” to signal, “I understand you folks, and I’m prepared to use my political power to do your bidding.” Thus the name can be used approvingly, to imply down-home virtues and a salt-of-the-earth quality. Yet it is inevitable, perhaps, that the phrase when used by the powerful always bears an undercurrent of condescension if not active disdain.

But something else again happens when others use it. “Joe Sixpack” is generally used to refer to the average American by everyone except the elites without the least apparent irony. When non-elites use this expression, as far as I can tell, it is much more likely to be neutral or laudatory, except when a writer objects to the term because it sounds demeaning. A valid point, but it raises a question: Could this be an example of the masses taking over a contemptuous label and turning it into a term of solidarity, like gay men calling themselves “queer”?

Here is an expression, like “inner child,” “type A personality,” and “whistleblower,” that leads a persistent double life. Is it the average guy, or the average uncultured beer-swilling slob? Or is it nobler: an honest citizen working hard, paying taxes, raising the kids, and living in peace with the neighbors? Maybe we should not be surprised that an expression beloved of politicians is steeped in ambiguity and duplicity.

six-pack abs

(2000’s | athletese? | “well-defined stomach muscles”)

A popular on-line dictionary reports that the term arose in the early eighties, but I haven’t found anything before 1995 in LexisNexis or Google Books, except one reference in the Herald Sun of Sydney, Australia in 1994. Does the expression come from abroad? I doubt it, but I don’t know, and my usual Internet sources don’t offer much help. You’d think it was a bodybuilder’s term, and I wouldn’t argue with you. “Abs” for the rectus abdominis muscle seems to be a little older, dating back to the eighties; the elaboration came along later. A plural word to refer to a single muscle? That’s just how we do things around here.

Many have noted the irony of describing well-defined and developed stomach muscles in such terms, since just about anything that comes in a six-pack is likely to be fattening. records fifty-odd variations — but not a definition of “six-pack abs” itself, oddly enough — many of them involving the word “keg” or other sarcastic references to beer bellies. But the phrase caught on quickly; Charles Atlas himself had adopted it in his advertising by 2000. It’s punchy, easy to envision, and I doubt anyone ever needed to have it defined — a photo from a body-building magazine is all you need. (In this case, one picture nets you only three words.) The phrase built muscle quickly and now is showing enviable stamina. In a culture where physical fitness is extolled, admired, and occasionally even practiced, “six-pack abs” will have no trouble maintaining its supremacy in the weight room of words.

It’s strange that only abs get this treatment: you never hear about “crystal-ball biceps” or “boxing-glove pecs.” Then again, maybe it’s not so strange.

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