Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’ve just learned a wonderful term for a common state of mind: “precarious manhood”.

The authors report 5 studies that demonstrate that manhood, in contrast to womanhood, is seen as a precarious state requiring continual social proof and validation. Because of this precariousness, they argue that men feel especially threatened by challenges to their masculinity. (from this paper)

This term (and idea), first publicized by J.A. Vandello, describes the feeling that your very masculinity is always under threat, and that, much like the cooties of yore, one is liable to catch femininity from any association with the feminine (or effeminate).

I just happened upon a wonderful example of this fear in action. Below are two small pocketknives, both by Spyderco, a Colorado knifemaker:

Image from ‘dyril’ on EDCForums

They are both made of the same materials. They’re about the same size (although the bottom one is marginally bigger). They have the same function, mechanism, and overall design (although again, the bottom is slightly wider). What’s the difference, you may ask?

The top knife is a popular model from Spyderco, the “Ladybug”. The bottom is a recent addition to the lineup, called the “Manbug”.

What is a “manbug”? Google returns no results except for the knife, so it’s clearly not an insect. Well, as explained on Spyderco’s website for the Manbug:

Anyone who has ever used a LadyBug knows that it cuts with an authority far beyond its size. However, as part of Spyderco’s quest for C.Q.I. (Constant Quality Improvement), Glesser decided to make it even better. And, for anyone whose male ego made it difficult for them to carry a “LadyBug,” he also made life easier.

So, apparently, although the “Ladybug” cuts many things well, what it’s most effective at cutting is precarious masculinity, and that alone was worth a creating new product line.

I generally don’t go into gender dynamics in language, as I lack the sociological chops that some of my colleagues have (and which seem required to write about social topics without hurting yourself). But reading about the “manbug” on the same day I learned about “precarious masculinity”, I just couldn’t help myself.

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