When I wrote an On Language column in the New York Times Magazine last month about the rise in popularity of the expression "man up," little did I know that it would turn into one of the key catchphrases of American political discourse in advance of November's midterm elections.
"Man up" hit the big time on the political scene on October 14th, when it was used by two female candidates for the U.S. Senate in their debates against male opponents. In Nevada, Sharron Angle used it against Harry Reid, the Democratic incumbent and Senate Majority Leader. "Man up, Harry Reid," Angle said. "You need to understand we have a problem with Social Security." Meanwhile, on the same day in Missouri, Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, told Roy Blunt, a Republican, "I think if you want to repeal health care reform and let insurance companies go back to their worst abuses, Congressman, then you ought to repeal your own first. And man up. And do what you're asking other people to do."
It was Angle's comment in particular that attracted widespread attention. Sarah Palin, queen of the "Mama Grizzlies," picked up on Angle's usage and repeated it at a rally in her support on October 18th in Reno, Nevada. But Palin turned the expression on national leaders of the Republican Party who have been reluctant to throw their weight behind the Tea Party movement. "Hey, politicians who are in office today you, some of you, need to man up and spend some political capital to support the Tea Party candidates instead of doing this, waiting to see how everything is going to go," Palin said.
Though it's nice to feel a bit ahead of the curve on this one (Bill Kristol, in the Weekly Standard, even suggested that Angle might be a fan of the On Language column), "man up" has been in the political ether for a while now. On the Atlantic Wire, Ray Gustini compiled a comprehensive list of recent uses of "man up" as a political barb, going back to March 12, 2008, when Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox used it against Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Actually, fiction trumped reality, because the week before that on Saturday Night Live, "Hillary Clinton" (played by Amy Poehler) told "Barack Obama" (played by Fred Armisen), "Man up! Calm down and listen!" (The SNL sketch was a fake Clinton commercial dramatizing how a would-be President Obama would react to the "3 a.m. phone call" that had appeared in an actual Clinton commercial.)
The real Hillary Clinton never said "man up" to Obama, but Angle and Carnahan have shown that the jibe can be effective for female politicians (on both sides of the aisle) to question the fortitude of their male rivals. As I described in the On Language column, "man up" covers a wide range of connotations, from "Don't be a sissy" to "Do the responsible thing." The use of the expression by politicians is ostensibly a call to responsibility and courage in the face of adversity, but the gendered nature of the remark is impossible to ignore — especially when it's used by a woman as a political slight against a man.
Some commentators were outraged at the latest calls to "man up" coming from female politicians. On his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, called both Angle and Carnahan's statements "off the charts ridiculous":
Is the implication behind them that Reid and Blunt are not acting like men? I understand the history of the outdated notion that someone needs to "be a man" and act tough, take responsibility, and be a leader. But is that expression really still around today on the lips of women candidates? Is it okay to impugn their masculinity like this? "Take responsibility" could easily have been substituted for "man up" but in using "man up," it calls into play the obvious retort. What if a candidate, male or female, told an opponent to "woman up?"
Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post was a bit more measured in her criticism, recommending to candidates, "Don't — even, or maybe especially, if you're a woman — equate toughness with manliness. At least not unless you think it's acceptable for your opponent to tell you to behave like a lady."
And it's not just in the world of politics where the manly phrase has been wielded by women. A New Yorker article last year profiling Nikki Finke, who runs the website Deadline Hollywood Daily, quoted Finke telling Jay Leno to "man up and shut up." (Compare "put up or shut up," one of the similar "up" imperatives that I discussed on Word Routes last month.) Finke told The New Yorker, "I talk to alpha males all day, and the women I talk to are alpha females, so I end up writing like a man, in the language they're comfortable with. I don't pretty it up."
Politics, too, is often seen as a sport of alpha males, but do women need to take on the rhetoric of virility in order to compete? Surely there are other alternatives. How about "human up," as suggested by the bloggers at Jezebel, among others? Let us know your suggestions in the comments below!
Update: I had more to say about "man up" and other political buzzwords on the NPR show Here & Now.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer