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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: masculinity

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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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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(1980’s | journalese? therapese? | “unscientific,” “soft-headed,” “frivolous”; also “hands-on”)

“Touchy-feely” is actually a little old for the blog, having arisen in the late sixties or early seventies to talk about Esalen and encounter groups. In its original sense, the term was quite literal; the phrase referred invariably to physical contact, often with the implication that there was something illicit about it. No doubt some of that stuff really was orgies disguised as treatment, but more legitimate forms of therapy also explored the benefits of contact — affectionate, violent, or otherwise. This meaning of “touchy-feely” was always most common but the expression had two other meanings since the seventies that remain available. One is “affectionate” — but “touchy-feely” is often used more specifically to describe someone who subjects students or employees to unwanted touching. The other, less common, is “hands-on,” as in a museum or lesson. So an exhibit where visitors are encouraged to touch the objects on display might be described as touchy-feely. This is not a common usage, but I found examples from the seventies and the teens, so it demonstrates a low-grade persistence. Occasionally, it can even mean “intuitive to use,” as in a smartphone feeling natural under one’s fingers. As far as I can tell, the phrase has nothing to do with “touchy,” meaning irritable or easily offended. Older expressions that may have exercised influence are “namby-pamby” and “lovey-dovey.” A newer one that is used in similar ways is “warm-fuzzy.” (Thanks, Liz!)

The reigning meaning of “touchy-feely” mutated, or grew, rather quickly. By 1980, it was already possible to use it much more loosely to talk about all kinds of human interaction, not just tactile. Anyone who tried to get a group to work, play, or learn together effectively by getting to know each other (or themselves) or talking about feelings rated the term. To this day, it is used to talk about the unquantifiable, the impressionistic, the emotional. Even when “touchy-feely” doesn’t mean touch, it always means feelings.

The expression is generally used with derision, which may be veiled or unconcealed. The state of being “touchy-feely” is the antipode of rigor and analysis, so it is unscientific and its benefits are therefore considered unprovable. But it is also opposed to machismo. Real men do not drag emotions into the conversation, or base their actions on them (which is just as well, because when they do, they tend to turn violent). It is also opposed to law and order; cops and prison guards reserve special venom for those who advocate anything other than forcible and remorseless crackdowns on criminals. The range of people who use the phrase with a sneer is wide: engineers, computer geeks, physicians, businessmen, law enforcement, political conservatives, real men from all walks of life. At its broadest, it becomes a synonym for vague, impractical, effeminate, soft, or weak. Even when it is used jocularly, an undertone of scorn is usually there. When tough-minded executives use the term, they do so to dismiss anything unrelated to the bottom line, and the phrase connotes employees paying too much attention to themselves and not enough to the welfare of the company. The work done, and even the employees themselves, have a dollars-and-cents value, and anything that suggests that they might have other kinds of value, to each other or to the organization, is brushed aside. In extreme cases, human warmth of any kind, even in the briefest manifestations, is considered detrimental to profits.

“Touchy-feely” has come to stand for a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. In that respect it resembles another sixties word, “holistic,” but it has fewer defenders. You don’t use this term when you’re talking about making the office more productive by creating a collegial and friendly atmosphere, except perhaps with a tone of rueful irony.

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male bonding

(1980’s | academese | “camaraderie,” “esprit de corps”)

An expression created by a known, specific person, like “hot button” and “factoid.” “Male bonding” was coined by anthropologist Lionel Tiger; the term played a prominent role in his book, “Men in Groups” (1969), and the only earlier sighting in the OED comes from a 1966 paper by Tiger and Robin Fox. Google Books turns up no instances before 1969. From the seventies, only a few hits come up on LexisNexis, but they generally had at least a faintly technical tone and had little to do with beer-swilling, or even disciplined communal pursuit of athletic or military glory, which is closer to what Tiger had in mind. Writers used it narrowly to talk about organization of all-male groups and how leaders were chosen. An interesting thing happened in the early eighties: arts writers adopted the expression to talk about characters in books, plays, movies, etc. That sort of use has remained common from that day to this, and is probably the avenue by which most Americans first encountered the term. That’s noteworthy because arts writing has funneled a lot of therapese expressions into everyday language, and “male bonding” could easily have been coined by a therapist. But Tiger’s priority is clear. Now, the images most often conjured are auto shops, bowling alleys and bars, or other all-around guy stuff. It can happen at a restaurant or senior center — anywhere men gather without women. And even if they do little and talk about less, just sittin’ and spittin’ in the same room gives all us guys a charge.

There are many examples of all-male duos and larger groups in ancient history: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Spartan warriors, Jesus and the apostles. Such images occur plentifully in more modern times as well, as in Elizabethan acting companies, football locker rooms, and any number of chain gangs. There is a general sense that such untrammeled intimacy has disappeared, or severely declined, since the sixties, when feminists started getting uppity again and men surrendered, instead of standing up for themselves and using that old male bonding to put down the latest ladies’ insurrection. That strategy had worked pretty well for several thousand years, but the guys just couldn’t get it up any more ca. 1963, probably due to fluoride in the water or Russkies in Cuba or something like that. So instead of saying, “Gee, we’ll have to pay more attention to women now,” we said, “Our ancient fortresses have been stormed, and men shall never laugh together over the Three Stooges again.” The eighties saw the rise of the aggrieved American man, a tiresome John Updike hero twenty years on, resentful that women have become more suspicious, or just more knowing, about stag parties and beer busts. A minor genre bloomed in which men lamented the death of comfortable male companionship and the need to defend their right to assemble without women. Not that it had really become more difficult for most men to gather in single-sex groups, but they felt guilty about it and blamed feminism.

Tiger traced male bonding back to hunting and gathering societies and found examples among other animals, although many scholars took issue with his primatology. He argues that it is partly rooted in biology (so it gets a pass — if we inherited the behavior from our ancestors, then objections are more or less futile), and it has profound social implications. The way men form small groups within groups (I wonder if there’s any resemblances to the way schoolgirls form social cliques) is deeply important to the development of society. He goes beyond the simple assertion that male bonding is significant because a lot of it goes on. He ascribes a powerful force to intense male friendships, diminishing by implication the social significance of other kinds of human cooperation. And he betrays a certain nostalgia for a past in which it was taken for granted that grown men could exclude women from decision-making whenever they felt like it, as boys post “Gurlz keep out” signs on their treehouses. It is undoubtedly true that most men benefit from a certain amount of time away from women, but must we demand social betterment from such vacations? Tiger claimed not just that men behave differently when no women are around (a trivial observation), but the relationships they develop inform customs and government of society as a whole.

Mainstream culture has taken Tiger’s phrase and turned it into a bit of a joke (cf. the recent neologism “bromance”). Part of the slippage of this term results from the fact that Tiger had little to say about politics or corporations, where men still make decisions with little or no contribution from women (though this is changing at a glacial pace), which gave critics an easy line of attack. Tiger also did not use the concept of male bonding to address interplay between fathers and sons, but inevitably the term has grown to embrace such interactions as childrearing has taken up more and more room in our discourse. In common usage, there is no nobility inherent in male bonding; it’s as likely to lead to mayhem or sophomorism as improvements in the human condition. Another trend of recent decades has also played a role in the failure of Tiger’s concept to take a more exalted place in our culture: a sharp increase in individualist rhetoric. There’s something suspiciously communitarian about male bonding, which after all involves by definition a bunch of men acting in some kind of concert — a far cry from the sort of every man for himself, no holds barred, to the winner go the spoils esthetic that has flourished recently in American politics, one hopes temporarily. Such cartoon individualism veers so far from life as we know it that it cannot help but lead us astray if we take it seriously.

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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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