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There are various speculations about its origins: its being a euphemism for 'Good Lord' or a simplification of 'any living man' or again a shortened 'no matter – man alive!' (Thomas Hood 1845)

  • "Alive", wrote Brian "had a life in expletives and interjections." [Phrases.org.uk]

Now, I seem to remember someone saying it had to do with the marine call, after a storm, to identify a survivor.

What are your thoughts on this?

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There doesn't seem to be a clear origin. Several wishful thinking suggestions have been advanced but none seems well-supported or widely accepted.

Etymonline suggests it might derive from expressions like "there was no man alive who...", quoting Swift "they were sure no man alive ever writ such damned stuff as this". It's possible you might move from this to shouting "no man alive!" and even more incoherently "man alive!" but there doesn't seem to be much evidence.

The idea that it comes from sailors is a theory, advanced by people including Ben Kentish of LBC (London, UK radio station), but searches fail to turn up evidence that this was a particularly popular thing for sailors to shout.

Another theory advanced on bulletin boards (but nowhere else that I can find) is that it derives from a similar Welsh phrase, Dyn byw, which means "man alive" but is a minced oath for saying God (Duw). (AnswerBag)

"Man alive" is also a bingo nickname for the number five, but we can assume that's later. (Wikipedia: List of British bingo nicknames)

The OED's entry for alive points to similar, and sometimes older, sayings like Good sakes alive, Christ alive, etc, from the 18th or 19th century, with its first citation of "man alive" from 1839 in the American writer Caroline Kirkland, but it doesn't have an entry or give an origin for "man alive".

"Man" is also commonly used as an ejaculation: the OED (man n1) has it going back to Old English "Used to address a person (usually a man, but sometimes a woman or child) emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc." So "man alive" may be an extension of that.

Writing Explained is one of several sites that doesn't reach a clear conclusion, and that seems the wisest outcome.

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    This assumption is also worth citing: “An expression of surprise or pleasure. The phrase most likely arose as an alternative to something stronger, such as “Good lord!” which would have been acceptable to those people who objected to taking the deity's name in vain.” Endangered Phrases by Steven D. Price Copyright © 2011 by Steven D. Price
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 16:26
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In the Middle English period alive had emphatic sense. One of the attestations cited in the MED for alive is from Chaucer's Clerk's Prologue and Tale:

O, wo were vs alyue!

Couple that emphatic meaning with the ejaculatory sense of man that StuartF cites from the OED in that answer, and you have a pretty decent idea how the two words could be enlisted together for that purpose.

There was also the very common collocation man alive that meant "man living", i.e. "anybody, anyone".

I think we may find the collocation used as an oath here, from the first quarter of the 14th century:

Hii suore hii nolde ȝelde þe castel man aliue. (The Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester) per the MED, alive, adv. & adj, 1(b).

"He swore he wouldn't yield the castle man alive.[sic]"

I'm thinking we would see the preposition to there, "to man aliue", if man alive was the indirect object of ȝelde.

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  • Probably “he wouldn’t yield the castle (with even one) man alive.”
    – Xanne
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 3:01
  • With even one man left to defend it? That would have to be himself, right? So, "not while I'm alive to defend it!"
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 10:34
  • Right. He won’t be there, having died defending the castlle. But the castle will still be there.
    – Xanne
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 20:21
  • But under new ownership, as they say.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 20:49

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