Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
"Man Up" and Other Uplifting Imperatives
My latest On Language column for The New York Times digs into the currently popular words of instruction, "Man up!" How you interpret it has a lot to do with what exactly you think it means to be a man. As I write in the column, it can mean anything from "Don't be a sissy; toughen up" to "Do the right thing; be a mensch." But the up is just as important as the man, since it connects the expression to a family of imperatives of the "X up" variety, many having to do with accepting responsibility for one's actions.
The column focuses on man up and the similar phrase cowboy up, rodeo slang dating to the 1970s. But consider some of these other upwardly mobile exhortations from past decades:
- wake up and smell the coffee: The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as "to be realistic or aware; to abandon a naive or foolish notion." Though the earliest known example dates to 1943, the American advice columnist Ann Landers (as Esther Pauline Friedman was known) was most responsible for popularizing it beginning in the 1950s.
- step up to the plate: Not surprisingly, this phrase has its origins in baseball. As Paul Dickson, author of Dickson Baseball Dictionary, told us last year, baseball became a rich source for metaphors in the speech and writing of early twentieth-century Americans. This expression (defined by the OED as "to take action in response to an opportunity, crisis, or challenge; to take responsibility for something") is no different. A
1919 example from the Washington Post transfers the baseball usage to the theatrical world: "When William Harris, who produced the play, recently reached the conclusion that it was a failure, Mr. Shipman stepped up to the plate with a suggestion that he continue the run of the stage story 'on his own.'"
- put up or shut up: This request for someone to match words with action resembles other blunt Americanisms such as put your money where your mouth is. It goes all the way back to the mid-19th century, as in this 1858 citation from the Marysville (Ohio) Tribune: "Now, if he means business, let him put up, or shut up, for this is the last communication that will come from me in regard to this fellow." Mark Twain also used it in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: "This was a plain case of 'put up, or shut up.'" (An earthier version, nut up or shut up, appeared as the tagline for last year's movie Zombieland.)
- straighten up and fly right: The first part, straighten up, has had an extended meaning of "be honest; stay on the level," since the early twentieth century. But the full version owes its popularity to the 1944 Nat King Cole hit of that name. Though Cole shares writing credit for the song with Irving Mills, the story goes that Cole came up with the idea from a sermon he had heard in his father's church, in which "a buzzard took a monkey for a ride in the air." A memorable scene in the movie The Right Stuff has the soon-to-be astronaut John Glenn, a straight arrow if ever there was one, correctly identifying the song on the game show, "Name That Tune."
- stand up and be counted: This imperative demands that a person "display one's conviction or sympathy, esp. when this requires courage," as the OED has it. It originates in American political usage, dating back to 1904. "Standing up" for one's convictions is a popular metaphor in other varieties of English, as in Bob Marley's advice to fellow Jamaicans, "Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!"
And there are many more where that came from in the annals of U.S. usage. Even a simple phrasal verb like grow up has been given a particularly American spin. As an imperative meaning "be sensible or mature," it shows up in J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield's pimply dorm-mate Ackley says, "For Chrissake, grow up." Of course, it's not simply Americans who call on others to face up to something, own up to something, or stick up for something. But the country has definitely generated more than its share of idioms that ask for a show of courage or responsibility. Man up continues this tradition, adding a touch of modern-day virility.
Know of any other upstanding members of the "X up" family? Let us know in the comments below!