This time it’s a phrasal verb that demonstrates Prime Minister Johnson’s fluency in sexist language. While Johnson didn’t invent the phrase to man up, he has borrowed it from the underbelly of popular culture. According to the Google dictionary, it means to ‘be brave or tough enough to deal with an unpleasant situation.’ Yet, the definition is more than that. To man up is one of those expressions that carries its etymology with it – that is, its full meaning is to be brave and tough like a man. Many phrases and words in English (and other languages) linguistically operate in this metaphorical way. We have to break the ice and cherry picking, to name a couple. Unlike these examples, to man up gets its meaning from gender stereotyping, from a world where men are brave and tough and women are the antithesis. It’s a fantasy world that has disregarded women’s work and women’s voices for centuries.
Whenever I see what I think is sexist language or behaviour, I check myself by running the reversal test – I first heard of this back in the early 90s from American feminist Gloria Steinem. It goes like this – replace ‘woman’ with ‘man’ or ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and see what you get. I’ve never heard of ‘woman up.’ Pulling yourself together and acting like a woman is not in our public discourse. Further, whereas the underlying sense of ‘to act like a man’ means to be brave, ‘to act like a woman’ is nearly always used as a slur, saying that someone is emotional or bitchy.
It could be argued that Johnson is merely reflecting in his language the sexism that festers in our society. Maybe Johnson is copying a phrase that has a modern ring about it. But this PM has already leapt farther than that. He recently called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when the Labour leader argued against a snap election. Similarly sophomoric, Johnson referred to former PM David Cameron as a ‘girly swot.’ I find these examples of degradation by feminisation even more disturbing than using man up. These boys’-school-sounding phrases are not found in dictionaries. Both expressions are unique to the Johnson idiolect, no mimicry of popular culture or trying to sound cool involved.
What does that say about the man-child living at 10 Downing Street?
While Johnson has not turned his sexism into misogynistic legislation in the way Tr**p has (e.g. removing funding for women’s health in developing countries), I don’t think we should take the PM’s language lightly. To quote poet Suzy Kassem, ‘Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words. One wrong word, or misinterpreted word, can change the meaning of an entire sentence – and even start a war. And one right word, or one kind word, can grant you the heavens and open doors.’