[Note: A Jan. 2, 2023, post discusses the use of “man” to address someone as well as its use in colloquial interjections like “Oh, man.”]
Q: I’m curious about the use of male nouns in expressions like “man oh man” and “oh brother.” Did these expressions begin life as euphemisms? Where are they heard most? Are there female equivalents? Oh boy! I can hardly wait for your response.
A: You may be surprised to hear this, but “man” has been used in similar expressions since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
You’d have a hard time making out the Old English examples, but here’s one from 1530 by John Palsgrave: “Plucke up thy herte, man, for Goddes sake.”
In this old sense, the OED says, “man” is used to address a person or introduce a remark “emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc.”
You’re asking about a much more recent usage, however.
The OED describes this “man” as a colloquial interjection “used to express surprise, delight, disbelief, amazement, etc. (freq. in oh man!), or to give force to the statement which it introduces. man alive!”
From the published references in the OED, the usage appears to have originated in the early 19th century. At first, according to the dictionary, it was “chiefly” heard among African-Americans and South Africans.
There’s no indication that these expressions began life as euphemisms. From the examples in the OED and other sources, the usage appears to be most common in North America.
The first OED citation is from the New England writer John Neal’s 1823 novel Errata: “Man!—Man!—I had a heart like a well—into it, every living creature might have dipped.”
The earliest OED citation for an “oh, man” version is from Police Officer, Claude L. Vincent’s 1990 study of policing in Canada: “Man, oh man, nobody is going to turn me into a social worker!”
However, a Google Timeline search turns up this May 31, 1926, headline from a Canadian newspaper, the Calgary Daily Herald: “Oh! Man, OH! MAN, WHAT A SALE!”
The OED describes the use of the interjection “brother” as “a mild exclamation of annoyance, surprise, etc.”
Here’s a 1969 example from the Victoria (British Columbia) Islander: “Then when you think you’ve got used to mountain roads you hit one like the Seton-Darcy road. Oh Brother!”
“Boy,” “oh boy,” “oboy,” and “boy oh boy” are described as interjections “expressing shock, surprise, excitement, appreciation, etc. Freq. used to give emphasis to the following statement.”
The earliest example in the OED (a one-“boy” version) is from George Ade’s Chicago Stories (1890), a collection of his newspaper articles: “S-s-t! Boy! Same as last time.”
Here’s a three-“boy” example from a 1932 issue of the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette: “But, boy, oh boy, oh boy, wouldn’t a line like that knock an editor out of his chair?”
We can’t think offhand of a female version of the kind of “man,” “brother,” or “boy” interjection that’s aroused your curiosity.
In an expression like “way to go, woman” or “what’s happening, sister?” or “you go, girl,” the interjection is used to address someone (as in that early “man” usage we mentioned at the beginning).
By the way, the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated. We discussed this in a blog item a couple of years ago.
[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 2, 2023.]