This is one of those rather terrible phrases which comes originally from America. Ben Zimmer, writing in the New York Times tells us how it came from American football in the 1980s:
"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 defence. 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 defence 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."" (1)
But the pure form of the phrase took a few years to develop, and he notes that the earliest example of its use in this pristine form 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." (1)
Zimmer's history of the roots of the phrase are explained very well in The Economist, under its "Samuel Johnson" column, a pseudonymous column taking its name from the famed compiler of the English dictionary:
"He traces its history from innocuous origins as an elongated version of the non-phrasal transitive to man (i.e., "to supply with manpower"), through a stint as a technical American-football term relating to man-to-man defence, to today's imperative man up! with its gamut of meanings ranging from "don't be a sissy" to "do the right thing" (2)
But the Economist also draws attention to the implicit misogyny embedded in the phrase:
"The term's male-chauvinist tenor implies that women are neither capable of being tough, nor of doing the right thing. Telling a woman to "man up" (or "be a man", a variant that Mr Zimmer ignores, but seems a near-perfect synonym), would sound a tad odd, other than in jest." (2)
In fact, the offensive nature of the phase is taken up by the English Language and Usage website, which notes that:
" 'Man up', along with a phrase such as 'You play like a girl', imply that it is better to be a man/male and worse to be a woman/female. Would you tell a woman to "man up?" Using a masculine descriptor as a positive or the feminine as a negative is rather insulting to females/women. (3)
Following a racist incident, when Luis Suarez's abused an opponent, Liverpool Football Club put "man up" and "play like a girl" on lists of words which they considered "offensive" and "unacceptable."
And a Guardian article, entitled, "Why it's not OK to 'man up'" asks "why must the language of power be so masculine?" The article gives some examples in contemporary political discourse:
"Kwasi Kwarteng MP, member of the influential Tory Free Enterprise Group telling the chancellor to "man up" and show he is serious about cutting the deficit? Or the former minister for women and equalities saying on a recent Andrew Marr show: "I think it's now time for [Cameron] to, you know, man up, step forward and actually say 'yes, we are going to do it'"?" (4)
And the article also notes how the phrase may be new, but revives old chauvinist stereotypes of man and women:
"As Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist at Oxford University, says: "It's a new expression, but not a new thought. The idea relates to ancient stereotypes about what it means to be a man." But, she points out, "There might be a reason for being hard, tough and unemotional when going to face death. But there's not such a good reason in politics. Feminist theorists such as Niobe Way think such language is bad for men and women, denying young boys in particular a way of dealing with emotions post adolescence." (4)
This is very much in line with what Harvey Jackins was saying with the co-counselling movement, that phrases like that were part of a repressive culture, which also included the uncritical acceptance of cultural conditioning into social norms such as "grown men don't cry". To repress the emotions means they will probably emerge in displacement activity, such as attacking other people for not being as tough and emotionally repressed as they are. Phrases like "man up" help to package machismo as a commodity.
" In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus, Cameron writes: "One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced."" (4)
Zimmer notes that "man up" started as just as a meaning relating to manpower:
"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." (5)
And he notes other examples of what he calls "cartoonish masculinity"
"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." (5)
Bob Franken, noting the popularity of "man up" as form of American political posturing, comments on:
"the inspiration for the "Man Up" mantra we're suddenly hearing from so many candidates, who are giving new meaning to the word "hardline". (6)
And he notes that it is in use from both left and right wing politicians, although more the right:
"this verbal disease is bouncing from one distaff side to the other from R to D. It's spewing out of the mouths of Senate candidates like Nevada's Sharron Angle, and Missouri's Robin Carnahan. It does seem to be more of a phenomenon of the Right though."(6)
Franken concludes that:
"It is not in the same league as some of the malice and demagoguery that distorts discourse. It's merely simple minded.. empty rhetoric, full of nothing but conjured emotion. "Man up" is relatively harmless. Except for one concern: it is flat out irritating." (6)
It makes its way into modern movies as well, where Jonathan Kiefer notes that it is almost a regression to the sexist attitudes of men in the past, "wallowing in nostalgia and hidebound macho posturing" (7)
When Lake Superior State University (LSSU) released a list of "Banished Words for 2011," this included the phrase- "man up." Considering this, Russell Cross, who is by profession a Speech Pathologist, with a background in Psychology and Linguistics, and who writes the Eyman blog, comments on the phase, which he describes as "a personal irritant". He notes that "Like many topical clichés, the perception of their frequency is more important than any actual measurements. They just feel overused."
Although it should be noted that the cliché counting site records monthly usage of "man up" as over 3 million!
It looks very much as if this phrase, with its embedded male chauvinism and macho posturing will be around for some time. Bob Franken has this to say:
"Unfortunately what many of us have now is a dreary case of "Man Up" Depression that no little blue pill is going to cure. Maybe we can replace that inanity with another maxim. How about "GROW UP!!" (6)
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