The Grammarphobia Blog

Mano a mano

Q: I’ve noticed that some people use the term “mano a mano” to mean man to man. What puzzles me is that mano means hand in Spanish, not man, so “mano a mano” should mean hand to hand. Why do people misuse this term and how did the mistake come about?

A: You’re right: mano does mean hand in Spanish, and mano a mano literally means hand to hand in Spanish. But Spanish speakers use the phrase to mean between the two of them, especially between two men. So, two Chilean legislators could have a mano a mano debate, and two Spanish bullfighters could have a mano a mano in the ring.

In English, the expression refers to a direct (think “hand-to-hand”) conflict or competition between two people, such as a mano-a-mano playoff between two golfers or a mano-a-mano struggle between two prize-fighters.

The term “man to man,” on the other hand, means frank and honest (as in a man-to-man talk) or refers to a one-on-one defense in sports, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Many people, though not dictionaries, think that “man to man” also means hand to hand (as in man-to-man combat), which probably accounts for much of the confusion between “mano a mano” and “man to man.”

What’s more, the Spanish word for brother, hermano, has a slang version in Spanglish: the short form mano. So “Hey, mano” is a rough equivalent of the greeting “Hey, man.” This usage, which cropped up in the 1960s, is probably influenced by the English word “man,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Thanks for the interesting question. You deserve a hand!

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