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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: merchandising

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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wow factor

(1980’s | journalese (film)? advertese? enginese? | “appeal,” “oomph,” “oohs and ahs,” “brilliance”)

Inasmuch as “wow” and “factor” both have relatively long and complicated histories, perhaps we should begin there before considering their union. “Wow” appears to go back to a Scots interjection, which could be laudatory or derogatory, and our modern understanding of the word emerged even before the beginning of the twentieth century; by 1925 it was going strong as an interjection and available as a noun or verb. The interjection is far more common than the other two today and probably always has been. “Factor” is an even older word that early in the twentieth century meant “gene,” basically (allowing for evolution in our understanding of genetics); now it is defined much more generally as “element or constituent, esp. one which contributes to or influences a process or result” (OED), especially if it’s important and its action is not well understood. “Factor” preceded by another term to denote a particular substance or catalyst is quite common in medicine; “Rh factor” being a longstanding example. “Risk factor” no doubt started life as a medical term but now flourishes in other fields. “Factor” became popular in Hollywood during the seventies, when it followed “Delta,” “Neptune,” “love,” and “human” (twice) in film titles (they all had to do with science fiction or espionage). And, to complete the picture — or the confusion — “wow factor” was used occasionally among stereophiles before 1980 to talk about irregularities in playback speed of tape decks and turntables, as in the phrase “wow and flutter.” So it seems the stage was well set.

By the mid-1980’s, the phrase started turning up in writing about entertainment (particularly films and television), computer software, merchandise more generally, and even service industries like banking. One early exponent was marketer Ken Hakuda, who used “wow factor” in 1987 to talk about his success in selling toys which he freely admitted were not useful or valuable except as a source of mindless fun. He used the term to refer to a highly visible feature of a product or its packaging that makes a strong, immediate impression, causing shoppers to whip out their wallets. That quality of impressiveness constitutes a common denominator among objects blessed with the wow factor. I’m not willing to take a firm position on the origin of this particular meaning. If I had to guess, I would say Hollywood, but advertese seems like an equally logical breeding ground, and I can’t say it didn’t start there. Because the phrase goes frequently with technological advance (especially when you’re talking about cinematic special effects), it is possible to argue that its source is enginese. While two of the earliest citations found in LexisNexis are due to Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, the very first (1984) was in the title of Miss Manners’s column, of all places. Did she supply the headline, or do we owe it to a forever anonymous editor? By the mid-1990’s, the expression was no longer extraordinary and had shed quotation marks, exclamation points, capital letters, and such tricks of the trade.

If you looked even cursorily at the pre-1980 equivalents listed at the top of this entry, you may have surmised, correctly, that I struggled to find convincing synonyms from the old days. That is because we used to say the same thing with adjectives — e.g., dazzling, eye-catching, awe-inspiring, cool — or verb phrases: knock your socks off, set something apart, jump off the shelves. Many new expressions have ensconced familiar ideas in new parts of speech, which usually is a net gain for the language. More ways to say the same thing reduces monotony and opens up room for small but significant variations in connotation. I’m inclined to consider the popularity of “wow factor” deserved. It’s short and to the point. And the ground meaning is quite clear, though it can imply two slightly different things, just as in the sixties, “wow” conveyed two different levels of excitement. One was the old gee-whillikers gob-smacked elation at seeing anything unexpected and pleasing. The other was quieter, more meditative, as in the pothead grokking the universe as he exhales. No squealing or jumping up and down, but the profound sense of something worthier than oneself that must be absorbed and appreciated with a drawn-out “wow.” “Wow factor” has always leaned more heavily in the direction of the former sense, but it can shade toward the latter sense as well, and seems to do so more often as time goes by. Not that the two meanings are all that far apart.

It has occurred to me to wonder if we should hear this expression with a whiff of the tawdry or meretricious. Given its early use and likely origins, it’s not hard at all for an old snob like myself to inflect it this way. But that would demand an ironic edge that I rarely or never hear when the phrase is used. A “wow factor” is a good thing that will impress the audience, sell the product, or make something stand out. The idea that there must be something cheap or slutty about it never seems to have taken root.

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