Posted by: Jack Henry | March 19, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Man

It’s Women’s History Month, so today we’re going to talk about men. Nope, I’m not kidding. We will definitely get to women, but we’re starting here with an excerpt from an article on masculine terms used in interjections, from the Grammarphobia blog.

Q: I’m curious about the use of male nouns in interjections like “man oh man” and “oh brother.” Did these expressions begin life as euphemisms? Where are they heard most? Are there female equivalents? Oh boy! I can hardly wait for your response.

A: You may be surprised to hear this, but “man” has been used as an interjection since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

You’d have a hard time making out the Old English examples, but here’s one from 1530 by John Palsgrave: “Plucke up thy herte, man, for Goddes sake.”

In this old sense, the OED says, “man” is used to address a person or introduce a remark “emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc.”

You’re asking about a much more recent usage, however.

From the published references in the OED, the usage appears to have originated in the early 19th century. At first, according to the dictionary, it was “chiefly” heard among African-Americans and South Africans.

[KC – My personal favorite use of “man, oh, man” is in the chorus of the song “I Palindrome I,” by They Might Be Giants.]

There’s no indication that these expressions began life as euphemisms. From the examples in the OED and other sources, the usage appears to be most common in North America.

The OED describes the use of the interjection “brother” as “a mild exclamation of annoyance, surprise, etc.”

“Boy,” “oh boy,” “oboy,” and “boy oh boy” are described as interjections “expressing shock, surprise, excitement, appreciation, etc. Freq. used to give emphasis to the following statement.”

We can’t think offhand of a female version of the kind of “man,” “brother,” or “boy” interjection that’s aroused your curiosity.

In an expression like “way to go, woman” or “what’s happening, sister?” or “you go, girl,” the interjection is used to address someone (as in that early “man” usage we mentioned at the beginning).

By the way, the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated.

And I will deliver that complicated story to you Thursday!

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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