Omega male: The opposite of an alpha male; a follower rather than a leader. (Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet.)
The term comes from animal behavior, especially the behavior of wolves. In complex packs, there will be an alpha male and female and an omega male and female. According to Wolves at Our Door, a 2003 book by documentary filmmakers Jim and Jamie Dutcher, the order of a wolf pack “is constantly reinforced by displays of dominance and submission”:
Unfortunately, the omega bears the brunt of this submission. One or many of the wolves will assert themselves over the omega, who can be expected to flip over onto his back, whimpering in surrender.
The earliest citation I found for omega male (homo sapiens) is in Urban Dictionary, dated September 19, 2005. Contributor “AbnormalBoy” submitted this definition: “Male in a group who is least likely to take the initiative and lead, due to a lack of esteem, ability or interest.”
(The term does not appear in any of the traditional dictionaries I searched, including the online OED.)
In “The End of Men,” her cover story for the July/August 2010 issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosen writes:
American pop culture keeps producing endless variations on the omega male, who ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack. This often-unemployed, romantically challenged loser can show up as a perpetual adolescent (in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or a charmless misanthrope (in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg), or a happy couch potato (in a Bud Light commercial). He can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man. “We call each other ‘man,’” says Ben Stiller’s character in Greenberg, “but it’s a joke. It’s like imitating other people.”
Greenberg also inspired “Omega Males and the Women Who Hate Them,” Jessica Grose’s March 2010 story in Slate. “They’re unemployed, romantically challenged, and they’re everywhere,” reads the grammatically challenged subhead. Grose writes:
In human terms, if an executive or a warrior is an alpha male and a nice-guy middle manager like The Office's Jim Halpert is a beta male, then Greenberg and his brethren are omega males. While the alpha male wants to dominate and the beta male just wants to get by, the omega male has either opted out or, if he used to try, given up.
The omega-male phenomenon is not restricted to North America. In Japan, omega males’ counterparts are called soshokukei danshi (“herbivores”) or ojo-man (“girly men”), reports Ben Schott in his Schott’s Vocab blog. Schott cites a Times of London article in which herbivores are defined as “metrosexuals without the testosterone.”
In some quarters, omega males are praised rather than pitied. As the Omega Male website puts it:
Omega Males generally don’t belong to any cliques and have no desire to be the leader or most outstanding of a group. Omega Males have relations with people from all groups and carry a resourcefulness and cunning strength to get a job done with their own skill. This being said, an Omega Male can have great pride without it manifesting as ego gratification.
The “must-watch movie” list at this site includes just one title: The Shawshank Redemption.
Speaking of movies, the omega male is not to be confused with The Omega Man. (“The last man on earth is not . . . alone.”)
I saw the Dutchers give a talk about wolf-pack pecking order at the American Museum of Natural History a few years ago. Overall, while wolves are harsh, I think they ultimately care more for their omegas than humans do.
Posted by: twitter.com/hush6 | July 19, 2010 at 07:52 AM
I feel very foolish asking this, but why is the subhead grammatically challenged? It ain't great but...
Is it the lack of parallelism in the use of "they're"?
Help a grammar star wannabe...
Posted by: stacey | July 20, 2010 at 04:34 AM
Stacey: Yes, the lack of parallelism.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | July 20, 2010 at 06:22 AM
Think of the schleimel and schlemazel of Jewish humour.
Posted by: Duchesse | July 20, 2010 at 04:10 PM