The J. Crew July catalog arrived this week. It features a lot of lightweight clothing that I’m sure is delightfully wearable if you live somewhere other than San Francisco, with our blustery, foggy, 60-degrees-if-we’re-lucky “summers.”*
One such item, the Military Tunic, caught my attention not for its wardrobe potential** but for the accompanying copy. (Photo and copy shown here are from the online catalog; the print version of the copy is shorter but very similar.)
“Our designers took an easy cotton silhouette and manned it up with military details like camp pockets and shoulder epaulets. Pair it with skinny jeans and go-for-broke heels for a look that commands attention.”
Sure, “go-for-broke heels” evokes entertaining images of splints and full leg casts. But I’m more curious about manned it up.
We saw quite a bit of the imperative man up last year in politics and popular culture. The phrase was the subject of one of Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” columns in the New York Times last fall, in which he noted the verb’s shift in meaning from “hire new staff members” to “don’t be a sissy” or “do the right thing.” The phrase was also appropriated in at least two advertising campaigns, for No Fear energy drink and Miller Lite beer.
Later in the year, in a Word Routes column at Visual Thesaurus, Ben examined the use of man up during the political-campaign season:
In Nevada, Sharron Angle used it against Harry Reid, the Democratic incumbent and Senate Majority Leader. “Man up, Harry Reid,” Angle said. “You need to understand we have a problem with Social Security.” Meanwhile, on the same day in Missouri, Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, told Roy Blunt, a Republican, “I think if you want to repeal health care reform and let insurance companies go back to their worst abuses, Congressman, then you ought to repeal your own first. And man up. And do what you're asking other people to do.”
(Angle and Carnahan lost their respective races.)
But the transitive form of the idiom—to man something up—was new to me, though hardly opaque: I understood that manned it up signified added masculine details to it. Was J. Crew’s usage original, I wondered?
Not exactly, although few of the examples I found used the expression in the same way as J. Crew. One example of a different meaning is “Should Women Man It Up?”, the headline on a 2010 feature in The Sun (UK). Rough translation: “Should women act butch?” Here the idiom imitates other “X it up” constructions (shake it up, clean it up, crank it up, chalk it up): it’s a phrasal verb in which it isn’t exactly an object. (My linguist pal @Trochee suggested that it’s a “dummy object.”)
When I searched “manned it up,” I found a few examples that were clearly transitive and matched the meaning of the J. Crew usage—it refers to a specific thing, such as an “easy cotton silhouette”—but they were from amateur writers, not large companies. In an Instructables post from 2009, AngryRedhead described making whimsical top hats for her wedding:
My SO [significant other] saw it and initially said he didn’t want one but changed his mind a few days later only he wanted it “manly”. I manned it up with some of the most manly stuff I could find …
Also in 2009, the style blog Find Style used the idiom between quotation marks: “Damn, You’ve ‘Manned It Up,’ Celine.” Here “it” may refer to the Spring/Summer 2010 collection of the French design house Celine, or “it” could be the vaguer “that thing you do, Celine.”
Urban Dictionary is less equivocal in its single definition for “man it up,” dated May 4, 2007: “To make something that seems too girly more manly.”
I should add here that although J. Crew copy tends to be brief, it does have a distinctive and influential style. For several seasons the word “obsessed” appeared about 20 times in every catalog (“We’re obsessed with ruffles”; “THE gift for the shoe obsessed,” ad nauseam). These days they’re favoring “to die for” (not, I hope, on account of those go-for-broke heels), “covetable,” “cool” (as in “cool girls,” “cool-kid jeweler,” “too-cool tutu tee”), and that fashionspeak standby, “must have.” In fact, earlier this week the “MUSTHAVE” code got you free shipping on orders of $150 or more.
* “The coldest winter,” etc.
** Even across the bay in Oakland, where it’s slightly warmer than in S.F., I’d need to add at least three insulating layers to that ensemble to render it suitable for a typical July day.