The Meaning of ‘Man Up’

The New York Mets lost their closer Francisco Rodriguez, a k a K-Rod, to season-ending surgery on a torn thumb ligament last month. But really the Mets lost him to two simple words: “man up.” According to The New York Daily News, that’s what Carlos Peña, the father of Rodriguez’s girlfriend, told him outside the Mets clubhouse, inciting an altercation that led to K-Rod busting his thumb and getting arrested on third-degree-assault charges for good measure.

While man up may have served as fighting words for Rodriguez, the exhortation is taking on many guises in American popular culture right now. Advertisers courting young male consumers are spreading the manly message. The Web site for the No Fear energy drink smacks the “Man Up” slogan across the screen, accompanied by an aggressive rock soundtrack. Meanwhile, Miller Lite has been running television commercials featuring a voice-over that growls, “Man up, because if you’re drinking a light beer without great pilsner taste, you’re missing the point of drinking beer.” (Light beer ads often amp up the masculinity, perhaps to compensate for their watered-down product.)

But man up isn’t just being used to package machismo as a commodity. Its spectrum of meanings runs from “Don’t be a sissy; toughen up” all the way to “Do the right thing; be a mensch,” to use the Yiddishism for an honorable or upright person. The Man Up Campaign, for instance, is a new global initiative that engages youth to stop gender-based violence: “Our call to action challenges each of us to ‘man up’ and declare that violence against women and girls must end,” its mission statement reads.

Not too long ago, man up was simply an alternative to the verb man, in the sense of “to supply with adequate manpower.” (Staff or staff up would be the more politically correct choices nowadays.) The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1947 letter to the editor of The Times of London from Henry Strauss, a Conservative member of Parliament, complaining about man up as an insidious Americanism. “Must industries be fully ‘manned up’ rather than ‘manned’?” Strauss asked. “Must the strong, simple transitive verb, which is one of the main glories of our tongue, become as obsolete in England as it appears to be in America?”

Strauss might have thought of man up as less than virile, but phrasal verbs with up have filled a wide variety of roles in both British and American English. Up gets used for literal upward movement (lift up, stand up) or more figuratively to indicate greater intensity (stir up, fire up) or completion of an act (drink up, burn up). It’s particularly handy for blunt imperatives calling for resolute action: think of wake up!, grow up!, hurry up! and put up or shut up!

One notable forerunner of man up as we know it today is cowboy up, a phrase that has been used in rodeo circles for decades. In Douglas Kent Hall’s 1973 book on rodeo life, “Let ’Er Buck!,” an old hand tells a rookie rider, “It looks like we’re going to have to cowboy up a little.” Another rider, in a 1975 article in The Reno Evening Gazette, talked about what it’s like to get clobbered in a bull wreck, with the rodeo instructor “right behind you saying: ‘Cowboy up. Get tough. Get tough.’ ”

Cowboy up wasn’t much known outside of rodeo country until 2003, when it became the rallying cry for the Boston Red Sox, thanks to the players Kevin Millar and Mike Timlin — both Texans, not coincidentally. Millar and Timlin injected this bit of rodeo slang into Red Sox parlance to fire up a team (and a fan base) that had long been ruled by mopey fatalism. As one T-shirt of the time put it, “Are You Gonna Cowboy Up or Just Lay There and Bleed?”

Man up owes its early popularization to another American sport: football, where it originally had a more technical meaning relating to man-to-man pass defense. In 1985, for example, the New York Jets head coach Joe Walton praised the work of his defensive coordinator to The Times: “They’re playing the kind of defense that I wanted and that Bud Carson teaches — aggressive, man up, getting after it, hustling all over the field.” A year before that, a high-school coach in Texas previewed a coming game for the local paper, The Baytown Sun, by saying, “We’re expecting them to use an eight-man front with their secondary manning up on us.”

Describing man-to-man defense as manning up on the opposing team is an easy linguistic step to make — so easy, in fact, that the same expression can be found in the early ’80s in Canadian and Australian football as well. But it was in the American variety that man up took on a more general idea of resilience in the face of adversity. The earliest example I’ve found of this extended use is from 1987, when the San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Mike Charles told The Union Tribune: “Right now, by the grace of God, we’re hanging by the skin of our teeth. Now we’ve got to man up and take care of ourselves.”

In recent years, man up and cowboy up have been joined by other “X up” macho-isms. Some evoke what might be politely termed testicular fortitude, like sack up and nut up, dated by the slang lexicographer Grant Barrett to 1994 and 1999, respectively. Last year’s movie “Zombieland” even showcased the provocative tagline “Nut up or shut up.” It’s not all about cartoonish masculinity, though. There’s still the notion of the stand-up guy, the mensch. In a nice mash-up of idioms, Rabbi Daniel Polish has interpreted the Torah story of Joseph and his brothers as a parable of — what else? — mensching up.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


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