Those nice people at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) have just released their list of “Banished Words for 2011,” and among them is a personal irritant – “man up.” Like many topical cliches, the perception of their frequency is more important than any actual measurements. They just feel overused. And once you’ve had such a cliche brought to you attention, it seems to appear everywhere, just like being told that the number “23” is spooky and, lo and behold, you begin seeing it so frequently that you can’t accept that it’s just coincidence.
To get an idea of how the phrase “man up” has developed, I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and did a simple search for the string. Not surprisingly, the majority of instances in the last three years (2007-2010) of the combination are in relation to its being used as a phrasal verb to mean “be a man” or “take responsibility.”
But prior to 2007, the phrase appears as simply a noun and a preposition in sentences such as “…lugged the unconscious man up the steps…” or “…help the old man up the ladder…” The shift from two separate words to a phrasal verb thus appears to have taken place in 2007.
As ever, there are always outliers. In 2003, a CNN interview by Anderson Cooper had the following exchange noted:
But I was trying to get them to man up. I was trying to get them to realize rugged individuals, some self-sufficiency, true independence was something to celebrate in this great experiment in self-government.
There’s another example in the same year in a Washington Post article by Jennifer Frey who, in writing about missing POW’s, cites an e-mail hat contained the following;
The last time I saw Spike, he was manning up for the flight in which he was lost.
There are fewer examples of the -ing form of the verb in the COCA but again, the majority are 2007 and up. And as a point of interest, all four examples of “manned up” are from 2008/2009.
From the comments at the LSSU site, the main criticism of “manning up” is that it has sexist overtones and would sound wrong if applied to women. After all, you don’t hear “woman up” being said to someone who needs to become a little more feminine.
However, this sort of “verbing the noun” is hardly unusual. Perhaps “phrasal verbing the noun” is rarer. It’s not uncommon to hear pundits saying that the US needs to “beef up airport security” or “beef up the borders,” with ne’er a hint of “cowism” suggested. And the coinage of “beefing up” to mean make something beefier (stronger) is similar to “manning up” as meaning making something more mannish (masculine). Others like this would include “to firm up” (make something more firm), “to jazz up” (make something more jazzy), and “to green up,” (make something more green).
Well, I’m happy to ‘fess up that this is the last time I’m going to use “man up” in 2011. Unless I slip up…