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The Word

Oh, man

Is it a prefix or an identity crisis?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Peters
March 2, 2008

HEY GUYS. Is it time for a manogram? Did you get your manimony check? Or is what you really need a (shudder) manzilian?

If you feel like you're seeing man words everywhere, you're not alone. Movies, TV shows, ads, and the Web have been pumping them out. Some are painful puns, some crude slang, and as a genre, they say a great deal about our ever-in-flux gender roles.

Man words come from many man caves. Manimony (alimony paid to fellas) got a boost when it was used on "Cashmere Mafia" this month, just as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" spread manscaping, which encompasses shaving, waxing, plucking, and other deforestation of the male bod. Manny - the word, not the ballplayer - was popularized by stories about Britney Spears's male nanny, and mancation caught on after Vince Vaughn said it in "The Break-up." Commercials feature man laws, man food, man suits, and man thongs.US soldiers in Iraq call the traditional Muslim dishdasha a man dress, while a resurgence of traditional manly activities has led some to discuss a menaissance.

I heard about manogram -a trademarked term for a prostate exam - on the American Dialect Society listserv (where Yale linguistics professor Laurence Horn also mentioned the AdMeTech Foundation's preposterous mascot Prosty the Spokesgland, who I hope is not available for children's parties). And while watching an NBA game, I recently heard commentator Reggie Miller mention a player getting hit in the man region, a term that surprised colleague Marv Albert, who preferred the old-fashioned, less-euphemistic groin.

Man regions aside, most man words are coined to describe men behaving like women, or at least stereotypical women. Men aren't supposed to worry about cancer, receive alimony, or get Brazilian waxes, so manogram, manimony, and manzilian are created. In those cases, the prefix is easily translated to "Whoa, dude, this man is not acting like a man."

How to act like a man is a humdinger of an issue if you are one. The late Steven L. Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, said in an e-mail to me last year that it doesn't take much for women to prove that they're "real women" in the widely accepted senses, but men are in a more slippery situation, especially with the role of father/protector/provider not considered as necessary or desirable as it once was. "[M]asculinity must be continuously earned and displayed. It is never won," Nock wrote. Without a traditional role to embrace, being a man requires constantly defining yourself in opposition to all things female: "No wonder things like man-purses attract attention."

And nothing seems to attract attention quite like the unsightly protuberances known as man breasts. These are so noteworthy that they go by many names, including man cans, man hooters, manmaries, and moobs, a shortening of man boobs that spawned the variation moobster. (Too many cannoli?) If you require a synonym that doesn't begin with m, try he-vage, the catchy word for male cleavage that caught on a bit last year. The Oxford English Dictionary traces man boobs and man breasts to 1991 and 1993 respectively.

The language has a long history of adding man to words, but before the 20th century it was more likely to refer to everyone than strictly to men. So older man words, though they may sound contemporary, often mean something different, like man-eater, which dates from 1600 and originally meant a cannibal, not a femme fatale. The same era produced man-hater, which referred to someone who disliked everybody, not just the boys. The OED turns up other rare coinages: man-angel (1711), man-devil (1600), man-dinner (1832), man-dog (1884), man-flesh (1812), man-nurse (1530), man-plague (1649), man-seed (1934), man-smell (1905), man-sphinx (1864), and man-witch (1886).

Though some of those anticipate the modern use of "man-," the purely male version of the prefix owes more to "Seinfeld," especially two of the show's many neologisms. Jerry dated a woman who was "part woman, part horrible beast" because of her man hands, while Frank Costanza and Kramer invented the manssiere to harness Costanza's man-can problem. Man bag - also known as a man purse -goes back to 1968 and is a major precursor of the current wordmania: Given the frothing cultural upheaval of that era, it makes sense that its new ideas about gender would have spawned new words.

Today, in the new metrosexual manscape, it's not hard to see plain old male insecurity as the root of the current slew of words. Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University and editor of the linguistics journal American Speech, speculates by e-mail that a rise in man words may coincide with "cultural anxiety over issues like gay marriage and partner benefits, etc., issues that prompt some to identify themselves and others more aggressively."

All that anxiety does make us members of the male species sound a bit pathetic. Do we really need our man trucks and mancations? And must we make fun of mankinis and mandals?

I'll have to take a man nap and sleep on that.

Mark Peters writes a language column for Babble (babble.com). His book, "Yada Yada Doh! 111 Television Words That Made the Leap From the Screen to Society," is forthcoming from Marion Street Press. Jan Freeman is not writing this week.

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