The dual identity of “the man” in American slang perplexes me. We say “Damn the man” or “Don’t let the man get you down” to sneer at establishment figures, from the police to nameless powers-that-be. Yet at the same time, perhaps even in the same conversation, we praise peers’ success by declaring “You’re the man!” or “You the man!” (“You’re the woman/You the woman” is basically nonexistent, replaced instead with the cheer “You go girl!”)
This makes me wonder: Is the dual existence of “damn the man” and “you’re the man” simply a colloquial quirk, an example of language’s inherent slipperiness, or is it more of a Freudian slip, a symptom of the United States’ inherent contradiction of being a land of the free where everyone wants to be “like a boss”?
In any event, in case you’re interested, “the man” as a synonym for authority figures first appeared circa 1918, especially among underworld figures, and percolated into the mainstream in the 1960s. Meanwhile, “You’re the man” has a slightly hazier history, but internet detectives point to The Kay-Gees’ oft-sampled 1974 LP “Who’s the Man (With the Master Plan),” which includes just two lyrics, “Who’s the man with the master plan?” and “Inflation in the nation, headed for starvation.”
Here’s the audio: