Word Routes

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!

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Ben Zimmer 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 more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 6th 2010, 4:47 AM
Comment by: Bernadette H. (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
'Fess up' comes immediately to mind - and with similar imperative meaning: to tell the truth and take the consequences.
Monday September 6th 2010, 5:03 AM
Comment by: Ol Hermit (Green Valley, AZ)
In your discusson of the term “man up” you considered the question of what it means to be a man. Most of the article relates to physical strength. Man is Man by virtue of being at the apex of evolution. Our primary attribute ceased to be physical strength with Neanderthal Man. Manning up should also relate to intellectual acumen, verbal fluency and an Internet presence.
Monday September 6th 2010, 6:27 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Very interesting article as it not only taught me new phrases, but it also gave me the idea to brush up my knowledge of phrasal verbs. As I found that this phrasal verb is written either “brush up” or “brushup” I wondered if there was a difference of meaning as well or the “brushup” form was actually incorrect (my computer – Spelling and Grammar: English (United States) - highlights it as incorrectly spelled, showing me that I should write it as “brush up”). As I couldn’t find the word written in this way (“brushup”) in my Oxford Dictionary, I have tried to find it on internet and I found both written forms on two different web sites. If “brush up” is a phrasal verb, “brushup” is a noun.
On one website ( http://www.thefreedictionary.com/brushup) I found “brushup” defined as a “practice intended to polish performance or refresh the memory” and on another site ( http://www.usingenglish.com/reference/phrasal-verbs/brush+up.html) I found “brush up” defined as “improve a skill quickly”.
On a third site ( http://www.advanced-english-grammar.com/phrasal-verbs.html)
only “brush up” appears (as it is not concerned with nouns) and is defined as “improve your knowledge and skill”. It seems to me that their difference is defined by the speed of improvement, if we consider their definition on the first two web sites (which means that there is a change of meaning when a transition is made from its form as a noun to its form as a verb and vice versa). However, on the second and the third websites “brush up” is defined differently, as the third website does not include “quickly” in its definition of “brush up”.
My Oxford Dictionary defines brush up (it does not have “brushup”, as I said) as a “study or practice something in order to get back a skill that was lost”.
So I am curious to know, if it is known, why in its transition from noun to verb “brush up” changes its meaning (and why, if that might be the case, we find different definitions for the same expression, instead of being told that the expression can have different meanings and find them all together, consistently, no matter the source). Very interesting article indeed and perhaps I should have not said it twice, as it must be obvious by now that I found it so.
Monday September 6th 2010, 8:14 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
After 37 chapters of Job's efforts to understand why he must suffer, the LORD "answered Job out of the storm. He said:

'Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me'" (Job 38:1-3, NIV).

Perhaps a Hebrew scholar can tell me whether Job is, in fact, the first person ever told to "man up."

Joking aside, the phrase "man up" strikes me as a needlessly antifeminist way to exhort someone to have courage.

Monday September 6th 2010, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
How about:

Lawyer up: get represented by a lawyer

Pump up: get muscled up

Muscle up: lift weights and build muscle tissue

Conjure up: think up an idea

Think up: mental image/thought

I could phrase up all day and still come to an end.
Monday September 6th 2010, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Giles S.
How about a focus on "down": get down; down to brass tacks; buckle down; battle down; knuckle down; get down to busines; batten down; settle down; dress down.
Monday September 6th 2010, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
The 'down' comments seem to share an emphasis on concentration or focus, or even an earthy centering, whereas the 'up' comments go in the direction of moral improvement or nobility. Maybe someone who is determined to 'man up' had better first 'get down to brass tacks' so his actions are efficiently performed. Thereby a a vertical balance. (Rather fuzzy: I know.)

By the way, I said 'his' actions because I can't really feel any female included in that phrase. But then we have "You GO, girl!" and that's one strong idiom.
Monday September 6th 2010, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Roberta: FWIW, Serena Williams had this to say about beating Justine Henin in the Australian Open last January: "She was playing well, but I knew I could play better so I literally told myself, ‘I need to man up.’”
Monday September 6th 2010, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'll bet it's for eons that we of the female gender have been told to 'act ladylike'. Perhaps man up is just the male version of the same expectation gender-wise.
Monday September 6th 2010, 9:04 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
If you don't "pony up" there may be a "dust up" and you might "jam up" (or variations thereof) the works. But I think I'll have a 7-UP, which I LOOKED UP on Google--seems there are urban legends about the name, but nothing definitive. Hate to be the one to BRING UP Freud, but could that MAN UP image be Freudian, if you PICK UP my meaning?
Monday September 6th 2010, 9:14 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
If you don't "pony up" there may be a "dust up" and you might "jam up" (or variations thereof) the works. But I think I'll have a 7-UP, which I LOOKED UP on Google--seems there are urban legends about the name, but nothing definitive. Hate to be the one to BRING UP Freud, but could that MAN UP image be Freudian, if you PICK UP my meaning?
Monday September 6th 2010, 9:34 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Sorry about posting twice (now thrice). If you BACK UP after following links and find yourself here, then hit "Post Comment"....well, anyway, I wanted to say that I should have read the NY Times article before commenting, since Ben Zimmer did make the connection of the word "up" with male anatomy. Interesting article, as were the links. Mark (above) takes us to Job and Ben Zimmer's NY Times article takes us to Joseph and his father and brothers, as Biblical figures "mensch up" all over the place. Adam, in the Genesis story, however, is a prime (primal?)example of failure to "man up" and take responsibility for eating that forbidden fruit. Blames his wife who blames the snake. Oh, and there's Kipling--that poem "If" that ends with the line, "Then you'll be a man my son!" Something about keeping your head when everyone around you is losing his and blaming it on you? We all make mistakes. It's owning up to them that makes us admirable people. So "man" in this context equals "admirable person" --sexist assumptions indeed embedded in the language.
Tuesday September 7th 2010, 3:01 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Yes, Ben -

Women have been swallowing the gender difference in idioms for a very long time. But when have you heard a man proudly use a female-type idiom - like 'Go girl, go!' referring to himself or a friend of his? The conversation always stops and guys glance and one another and sigh when it is brought up that women are supposed to be flattered by being told they behave like a man and men are made unhappy at at being told they behave like a woman. Thus men's names slide easily over to women, but you know what happened to "A man named Sue".

Now it's time to call me strident. Thank y'all SO much.
Tuesday September 7th 2010, 3:47 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
It's difficult to understand why a mature woman would find it opprobrious to be noted for her femininity. It seems to me one should be proud of who they are as the "gentler sex".
Tuesday September 7th 2010, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
For those who may have had the experience of a Naval Aircraft Carrier will note the age old command from the Air Boss to "man up" right prior to a launch, i.e. pilots man your aircraft, even though there are female pilots at the stick. You may refer to them as the "gentler sex," but behind the controls of an F-18 there is no gender bias.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 12:44 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Roger Dee, I think that women are still fighting to be 'persons' rather than the property of some man, either a father, brother or husband. In fact, in some societies today, this 'property' aspect is still evident.

We've not be recognized as liberated for very long and are therefore very conscious of gender related words, at least here in NA.

It's not that being the gentler sex is insulting, or something to be ashamed of, it's that we struggle to be recognized in many workplaces as being as capable as a man at that particular job.

Men don't have that problem. It's assumed that if you are there, you are qualified. I'm thinking now of the struggle women have had to get a foothold in business and politics, at the top spots, at least.

So be a bit generous toward us, please, in our search for adequate gender identifications. (Giggle)
Thursday September 9th 2010, 7:59 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, Jane B,
I am more than generous toward "the gentler sex".
It's just that when you have been deceived by some misguided "feminists" to do your thinking for you...telling you what to wear, what men all think and want, the significance of dress and bras...etc., then I grow impatient with the glorious creatures called "women" and those who believe their particular belief system is the only "right" one.
Am I clear?
There is much dishonest thinking that serves a man's agenda, and the girls buy it!
No one can ever be the "property" of another except for ignorance, apostasy, anarchy, mental illness, slavery, and so forth.
Friday September 10th 2010, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I agree about the marketing of women. Unfortunately, it's happening earlier and earlier. I had the benefit of growing up during a kinder (but more limited) age. We didn't have the advertising aimed at our hearts and minds then. Growing up wasn't easy, and career options were limited, but we were on the forefront then of changing opportunities.

I was part of the age responsible for getting more lenient hours in dormitories for us, and part of those responsible for getting relieved of our domineering deal of women!

I don't follow trends, and never have been one to do so, ever since I disobeyed my uncle and left his yard to cross 7 Mile Highway in Detroit to talk the soda clerk in a drug store out of an ice cream cone. I was three.

Crossed many risky streets since then, but managed to stay within the law. Maybe it WAS that spanking I got for leaving the yard, but I've remained, despite that, a GDI and a wee bit of a conservative rebel.

Friday September 10th 2010, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Now, Jane B.
I'm glad you agree with me and I with you!
For me, it was the 9-mile and Woodward crossing as we walked to Coolidge Junior High (7&8 Grades) in 1942 and on snowy winter days grabbed a ride on the bumper of a car at a stop sign. Streets were allowed to become icy then!
As for crossing dangerous streets since then, I just have to thank God I'm still alive and kicking!
Sympathetic sigh as well!
Saturday September 11th 2010, 8:10 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
A nineteen-year-old woman in my family just posted a message on a social network celebrating her return to shooting, ending with what she obviously thought was the clever declaration, "Real women know how to pull the trigger!" I found this statement disturbing on so many levels I felt physically ill, not a little because her return to shooting means that she has also returned to a relationship with the young man who gave her the gun. I have been an advocate for gender equality for as long as I can remember, and--as what was in my childhood called a "tomboy"--I thrilled to such outdoor adventures as Jane and Roger describe. I HATE being called a member of the "gentle sex"! But my heart aches at the hardness that batters my spirit as I "overhear" the online conversations of both young men and young women. To "man up" cannot mean peppering every conversation with harsh language, confusing bravado with courage, and sinking to the most brutal behaviors associated with masculinity. To me, "man up" calls for a man to be brave, truthful, responsible. Could it be, though, that the gender inequality embedded in our language leads young women to believe that to "man up" (achieve the autonomy and status that privileged men have long enjoyed)they must emulate the basest men rather than the gentle ones?
Monday September 13th 2010, 4:40 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
And, Dr. H (Joyce),
depending to which generation you belong, one's opinion regarding the trajectory of Western Culture in the USA now, as compared to mid-Twentieth Century, is anything but desirable.
An aggregate sample of today’s society would be disappointingly rife with vulgarity, sexual license, profane speech, dishonesty, exploitation, insensitivity in matters of race, gender, nationality, possessions, status, dreams, and much more such ugliness.
It’s not only gender! We need a broader view of our struggles and perceptions.
Sunday September 26th 2010, 7:55 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, it's way off topic, except it's about created words. Psuedo-Latinate ones.

Could we have a column dealing with some of these: absquatulation, busficate, argufy I've run across. Also aggravate is given as one which I do not understand. I didn't think it was a regional word.

This is the quote from a dictionary site: Another such coinage is Northern busticate, which joins bust with -icate by analogy with verbs like medicate. Southern argufy joins argue to a redundant -fy, "to make; cause to become." Today, these creations have an old-fashioned and rustic flavor curiously at odds with their elegance. They are kept alive in regions of the United States where change is slow. For example, Appalachian speech is characterized by the frequent use of words such as recollect, aggravate, and oblige.

Those last three strike me as common usage. Perhaps it is how used in Applachia, or perhaps I was raised too close to there! LOL

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Part one of our interview with baseball lexicographer Paul Dickson.
Part two of our interview with Dickson about his Baseball Dictionary.
In football, you can either be outsmarted or out-physicaled.