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Where did these interjections:

  • man!
  • (oh) boy!
  • oh brother

come from, and why are they all male?

If you don’t know their current meanings as interjections, it sounds very strange to say Man! when you are disappointed or frustrated, and Oh boy! when you are excited (although people are increasingly using it for other emotional contexts), and Oh brother (well, I'm not even sure of this interjection’s usage).

Why are they used as interjections, and why are they all male?

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That pretty much answers the "man" question. How about "boy" and "brother"? –  Daniel Jun 25 '11 at 11:35
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I would say "oh brother" is mostly used to express exasperation, as in "oh brother, here we go again". –  John Y Jun 25 '11 at 12:33
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Just to add to your list of explanations, "Oh, brother!" seems to be mostly used to express some sort of exasperation/disbelief at a comment/action. Don't know where it comes from though. All I can say with any level of certainty is that it is not common in British English. –  Karl Jun 25 '11 at 13:07
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Maybe I'll try saying "Oh, sister!" and see what people think. –  GEdgar Jun 25 '11 at 16:25
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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

These are all considered "minced oaths". "Oh, man" could be replaced one-to-one with a Commandment-breaking "Oh, God" or "Oh, Jesus", which are generally shortenings of some prayer for strength.

An alternate etymology is that of friendly condescension; the terms can be literally used when talking to one's peer, junior, or brother: "Oh boy, you've screwed up this time" could be used when talking to your son or one of his friends after they break a window. The terms have evolved out of their literal meaning to simply become an exclamation indicating exasperation at a situation, even when you're not really referring to anyone else in particular.

The gender bias of the interjections is largely reflective of the historical gender bias in English-speaking cultures throughout the evolution of the language. There has been some insertion of the fairer sex in interjections: "oh girl" and simply "girl" are heard in informal conversation nearly universally now, virtually always when speaking directly to a "girl". Even then, there's no small amount of chauvinism in the term; the word as an identifier for females in general stems from the general male preference for youthful-looking women.

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Maybe you move in different circles than I, but I've never heard "girl" used as an exclamation in the same way as "boy". That is, when someone is offerred something good, I've never heard them say "Oh girl!" like someone might say "Oh boy!" I have heard "You go girl" used to indicate encouragement to a female. That's the closest I can think of. –  Jay Jul 5 '12 at 21:11
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Remember that modern English rests on at least 400-years of patriarchy and male-dominated society. Mark Twain alone gave a huge chunk to our culture.

Plus - Fact is, it is easier to say "Aah man" than "Aaah woman" - An extra syllable does make a difference. But "aah lady" sounds K

But I'm all for fairness. Perhaps you and I can introduce some more gender neutrality? How about, "Gee willickers" or "Aaah Zebras!"

At BK the other day, I heard a young lady say "No pickles-No onions" very fast. and I mimed it like 50 times it was real fun to say.

Be creative and soon we'll pick it up.

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400 years? English? Are you sure that it was that long ago? –  Mitch Jun 27 '11 at 16:41
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I think you’re onto something with the patriarchy bit. –  PLL Jun 27 '11 at 18:13
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A gender neutral exclamation is Zaphod B.'s "Belgium!". This may create other problems, however. –  Peter Mortensen Jun 28 '11 at 8:38
    
But as "man" and "brother" are both negative exclamations, wouldn't this indicate an anti-male bias? If when someone stepped in manure they exclaimed, "Oh Belgium!", I don't think Belgians would take that as a compliment. –  Jay Jul 5 '12 at 21:07
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protected by Jasper Loy Jun 8 '12 at 15:26

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