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The phrase: "A man among men."

We have been having a debate about whether this means:

  1. unexceptional, common, like all others, ordinary
  2. a superior example of one in a class

We have found examples of both uses. Does anyone know where this term originated and what it meant when first used?

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1  
See discussion here. –  Callithumpian Mar 13 '11 at 19:51
    
I've never seen the second usage. Do you have an example of one or more of those? The first one has been used enough that it's become a cliché . –  jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 23:37
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Sounds almost homoerotic. :) –  tchrist May 10 '12 at 0:20

8 Answers 8

It means "an exemplar." One who should be emulated.

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While I can't provide any answers as to the origin of the phrase, the meaning is closer to the latter than the former.

What the phrase is implying is that the subject possesses attributes or qualities that set them above an already superior group. For example, if the only differentiation between a Gentleman and a regular man was physical beauty (such that all gentlemen were handsomer than non-gentleman) to say someone was "a man among men" would imply that out of a group of handsome gentleman, who are, by our definition, already handsome, this person is so much more handsome than the rest that the other gentlemen appear plain by comparison.

It's a bit of a different question as to what qualities "man among men" is referring to as it relates to people, however.

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Shouldn't your example be "a gentleman among gentlemen" rather than "a man among men?" –  user867 Mar 27 '13 at 6:55

The expression is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Berachot, 31b. In Aramaic, "Gavra B'Guvrin." Context suggests that it means "conspicuous among men."

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It could go either way. It all depends on the context. Particularly the speaker's tone of voice. Whether they speak of someone/something in admiration or in disgust.

Typically, I find that this specific case (man among men) usually means the second, and when speaking of other objects (a tree among trees) it usually means the first.

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It simply means he stands out as an individual amongst a group.

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Likewise, you could also use the term "First among equals". This one is actually a book by Jeffery Archer. A man among men, would in all probability refer to "A Man" characterized by special attributes and abilities not commonly observed in the general class of Homo Sapiens (referred to here as "among men").

Also, I would like to add certain quotes on the characteristics desirable in "A Man" :

  1. Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even. –Muhammad Ali

  2. Happy the man who, like Ulysses, has made a fine voyage, or has won the Golden Fleece, and then returns, experienced and knowledgeable, to spend the rest of his life among his family!” — Joachim du Bellay

  3. I have always thought that every woman should marry, and no man. — Benjamin Disraeli

  4. Feelings are not supposed to be logical. Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions. –David Borenstein

  5. To me, being an intellectual doesn’t mean knowing about intellectual issues; it means taking pleasure in them. –Chinua Achebe

  6. A true man hates no one. –Napoleon Bonaparte

  7. The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion… It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider – and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation – persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree. –Alexander Graham Bell

Now you'd never really hear "A Woman among women" but Have you ever heard "A woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do" ?

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I have always taken it to mean the latter.

To relay the meaning of the former, it would be "just a man like any other".

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This statement was maybe first mentioned in the story Bogart by V.S. Naipaul

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Willing to bet it is older than that, but since you cite no references, it really doesn't matter. –  itsbruce Aug 16 '13 at 21:42
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Wecome to ELL. When making statements of (alleged) fact on this site, it is generally expected that those facts will be substantiated by a reference, preferably with a link to the source. –  TrevorD Aug 16 '13 at 23:46

protected by tchrist Mar 24 at 6:05

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