It's a Man's Word: A Linguistic Fix for Fears of Unmanliness

Posted by Mark Peters

From man caves to man Spanx, a word trend grows a pair.

Have you seen the manmercials for Old Spice? Do you feel like we’re still stuck in a mancession, as some pundits call our economic woes, due to their dude-devastating ways? Have you gotten your fella a mangagement ring? Or if you don’t care for men, maybe you need a manllow—a half-man, half-pillow hybrid written about by Nancy Friedman.

Man-words—such as “mankini,” “man-date,” and “mancation”—are part of a silly category of words that goes back centuries, gained steam in the 1990s, and continues to produce preposterous examples. But man-words aren’t all about fun and manscaping: They’re a linguistic symptom of confusion over gender roles. Interestingly, this symptom of gender anxiety is also being used as a cure, or at least a tool for marketers to make men feel OK about buying mascara and girdles, by calling them manscara and mirdles. “Manning up” increasingly means paying up for all sorts of stuff.

Man-words fall into a few categories—one is for things, especially clothes, that have traditionally been the domain of women, such as “mantyhose,” “mantiques," and the atrocity known as “man spanx.” On Seinfeld, which helped boost the man-word trend in the 1990s, man-words were used for gender-panicky comedy: Jerry’s wearing a man-fur! His date has man-hands! George’s dad needs a manssiere! The trend of man-words being coined for clothing even spread to Iraq war slang, which has featured the “man-dress” for the dishdasha worn by Muslim men. A few much older terms seem in the same spirit, such as “manbag” (1968), “man-witch” (1886), and “man-nurse” (1530).

Those man-words are basically saying, “This is girl stuff, but for guys.” Other man-words emphasize how mega-manly something is, even if it lacks a womanly history. Here, “man” functions like a “girls keep out” sign on a treehouse. Words of this sort include “mancation” (spread by 2006’s The Break-up) and “man cave,” which The Word Spy’s Paul McFedries defines as “An area of a house, such as a basement, workshop, or garage, where a man can be alone with his power tools and projects.” Miller Lite’s “Man Laws” commercials and Jimmy Kimmel’s old The Man Show were also in this category.

A blurb for the DIY Network's show Man Caves shines a self-help-marinated light on the subject: “Guys need an exclusive space to hang out in their homes—a refuge where they can enjoy what they love, whether it's a soundproofed basement used as a rock 'n' roll lounge and adorned with limited edition guitars; a room where diehard ski fans can chill out with a roaring fireplace and alpine atmosphere; or a lush golf-lover's paradise, featuring a state-of-the-art virtual reality driving range, media center, and top-notch equipment storage space.” If you can afford all that crap, then “there's an environment for every guy that makes him feel fulfilled.” What a sales pitch: The way to embrace your inner guy is to interior decorate like a madwoman.

Indeed, man-words are often used by advertisers, hoping to tap into a popular trend and new markets. I talked to branding expert Nancy Friedman about the use of “man” in product-naming, and she reminded me of the Manwich—feeding men since 1969. She also brought several new examples to my attention: “MANterns” and “Mandles”—two fella-focused candle brands, plus “ManGlaze” nail polish for men. Friedman notices a couple motivating factors behind the trend. One is that “Men feel uncomfortable (threatened?) about buying and using these products, which have strong feminine associations” and therefore “need to be told in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that these girly or gay-ish products are OK for men. Nothing more subtle than the word MAN will suffice.”

However, the topic of man-words isn’t as grim as a drum-beating men’s studies class. Ranging from silly to preposterous, nearly every man-word is at least a little funny. Friedman says advertisers play on this humor, appealing to “an audience that isn’t afraid of a little self-mockery. ‘Mandles’ is just funny. ‘Man’ in a brand name is as air-quote-y as ‘the ladies.’”

I can’t deny that. I hope, barring traumatic brain injury, to never wear a mirdle, put on manscara, or get a manzilian, but I’m giddy as a school girl to use the words “mirdle,” “manscara,” and “manzilian.”

I hope such silliness takes this column out of the realm of the patronizing, know-it-all, blowhardy mansplanation. A real man doesn’t mansplain.