HomeLanguage EducationGrammarThe Grammarphobia Blog: What’s up, man?

The Grammarphobia Blog: What’s up, man?

Q: We’ve read that the use of “man” by dudes referring to each other comes from the Jazz Era, when Black musicians called each other “man” as a reaction to the belittling “boy.” However, we’re thinking that “hey, man” and such must come from way  before the 20th century.

A: You’re right in thinking that this use of “man” to address someone appeared in English long before the Jazz Age of the 1920s and ’30s. In fact, the usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, though its sense has evolved over the years.

When the usage first appeared in Old English, it was “used to address a person (usually a man, but sometimes a woman or child) emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the “Vercelli Homilies,” 23 prose homilies in the Vercelli Book, an anthology of prose and poetry probably collected in the late 10th century but originating earlier:

“cwæð sanctus ysodorus, geþence nu ðu, man, & ongyt gif ðu sylf þe nelt alysan þa hwile þe ðu miht” (“Saint Isidore said, ‘Now think, man, and consider if you don’t want to release yourself [from a sinful life] while you can”).

Although that original contemptuous, impatient, or exhorting sense of “man” is still around (“Hurry up, man,” “Knock it off, man,” and so on), the OED describes it as “somewhat archaic.”

In the 16th century, the dictionary says, “man” took on the sense you’re asking about: “Used to address a person (in many varieties of English, irrespective of sex) parenthetically without emphasis to indicate familiarity, amicability, or equality between the speaker and the person addressed.”

In the first Oxford example, a countrywoman uses the term in speaking of her lover: “ ‘Fow wo’, quod scho, ‘Quhair will ȝe, man?’ ” (“ ‘Oh, woe,’ quoth she, ‘Where will ye, man?’ ”). From “In Secreit Place,” a poem written in the early 1500s by the Scottish author William Dunbar.

In the next OED citation, a Puritan critic of the Anglican hierarchy uses the term to address Thomas Cooper, Bishop of Winchester, a defender of the hierarchy, during a war of pamphlets known as the Marprelate Controversy:

“Heere be non but frends man.” From “Hay Any Work for Cooper” (1588), by Martin Marprelate, the anonymous author or authors of seven tracts satirizing Anglican leaders. (The title of this tract, a pun on Bishop Cooper’s name, is an old London street cry by coopers, craftsmen who repair wooden casks made of staves and hoops.)

And here’s an example we found in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, believed written in the early to mid-1590s: “Why, man, what is the matter?”

In the early 19th century, the OED says, English speakers began using “man” as a colloquial interjection “to express surprise, delight, disbelief, amazement, etc. (freq. in oh man!), or to give force to the statement which it introduces. man alive!

The first OED citation for this use is from the New England writer John Neal’s 1823 novel Errata: “Man!—Man!—I had a heart like a well—into it, every living creature might have dipped.”

The dictionary notes that the use of “man” to address someone with familiarity was also heard, “esp. in 20th cent., in Caribbean English and among African Americans.” It adds that the use of “man” as an interjection was once heard “chiefly among African Americans and [in] South African [English].”

In the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Jonathan E. Lighter says the contemporary use of “man” to address someone is perceived as US slang because of its “association with the speech of jazz and swing musicians” and later “rock and roll enthusiasts,” but it’s a “semantically weakened offshoot” of the original Anglo-Saxon usage.

Clarence Major, editor of Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994), includes a related sense: the use of “man” by African-Americans as “a form of address carrying respect and authority” and used by “black males to counteract the degrading effects of being addressed by whites as ‘boy.’ ”

In A Jazz Lexicon (1964), Robert S. Gold includes the same sense of “man,” describing it as “current esp. among Negro jazzmen since c. 1920, among white jazzmen as well since c. 1940.”

The earliest example Gold cites is from the August 1933 issue of the music magazine Metronome: “Trum’s greeting was in the Negro dialect he usually employed: ‘Man! How is you?’ ” (“Trum” is apparently the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who was of white and Cherokee ancestry.)

And that’s the story, man.

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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