Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How 'Man Up' Led to 'Man Down!'

Just when we thought we were done with K-Rod for the season--done with him suiting up for the Metsies, done writing about him--Frankie Rodriguez is the star of a smart essay on, of all things, the intersection of language and baseball!

Ben Zimmer, "On Language" successor to the late, great William Safire, tackles the expression "man up" in the NY Times Magazine this week.

In fact, it was that same fateful phrase that Rodriguez's father said to the former Mets closer which precipitated the elder's beat down, according to the Daily News. I did not know that.

Zimmer writes:
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.

The phrase is not a new one, notes Zimmer, but it--unlike K-Rod--seems to be growing in popularity. Guy products such as light beer and energy drinks are peppering their marketing with the phrase.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, a commenter told my four-year-old son to "man up" in an essay I did on parenting for the NY Times!

As we stumble out of Labor Day weekend, it's worth noting that "man up" has its roots in labor. The phrase was an early predecessor to "staff up."

Not too long ago, man up was simply an alternative to the verb man, in the sense of “to supply with adequate manpower.” 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.

The phrase is more common in football than baseball, where a defense is often commanded to man up, as in, guard your man, and do not let your opposite beat you.

Ben Zimmer also details the country cousin of man up: Kevin Millar and his famous "cowboy up" phrase from 2003.

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?”

The 2010 Red Sox, plagued by injuries, look as though they've opted for the latter.

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