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Beefcakes and Barbarians: the language of the macho man

Today marks the birthday of Chris Pine, the actor who took on the role of Captain Kirk in the two most recent Star Trek films. Captain Kirk is the quintessential man’s man, whilst also being a bit of a ladies’ man. He is a rugged, handsome fighter who finds time to charm and seduce even as he saves the universe (again). Is he a good example of beefcake?

From cheesecakes to beefcakes

The term beefcake is derived from the earlier cheesecake, which was used to describe sexually alluring displays of the female form, particularly when used for advertising. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of cheesecake comes in 1934, and in 1942 Time magazine described the delectable Marlene Dietrich as “the supreme Empress of Cheesecake”. Beefcake came into being later in the 1940s, describing displays of muscular male bodies. This was by no means the first time male bodies had been compared to meat: beef, meaning male flesh or muscular power, was used by Herman Melville in Moby Dick  (1851), when the character Flask exhorts the sailors of the Pequod to “pile on the beef” during their whale hunt, while Horace Walpole wrote in 1743 that “I here every day see men, who are mountains of roast beef”. Walpole meant something quite disparaging by the use of the term, criticizing the fleshliness and coarseness of his neighbours; beefcake, in contrast, generally expresses both an appreciation of the well-developed male form and a humorous awareness of the cheesiness of the kinds of semi-nude poses usually involved.

The rise of beefcake through the 1940s and 50s was, of course, tied in with the allure of Hollywood. Stars such as Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, and Kirk Douglas regularly appeared in shirtless publicity shots and in roles that required them to show off their naked upper (and sometimes lower) bodies. Curtis and Douglas both starred in films such as The Vikings and Spartacus, early action films in which the muscular male body was a focus of visual attention. The word hunk, originally meaning a large piece of something, and later used for any large man (or, occasionally, woman), developed by the 1960s to refer specifically to the, by then, tremendously popular type of the rugged, handsome, manly man. The 1960s also saw an explosion in popularity of comic book superheroes. The term superhero has been around since at least 1899, when it referred to a person of extraordinary heroism; but it was Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, who debuted in the 1930s, who led to the redefinition of the term, kickstarting a mania for fictional super-powered, costumed heroes.

Building a body of studly words

The early superheroes were generally muscle-men, a term first recorded by the OED in 1838, when American author James Fenimore Cooper wrote that “I suppose these muscle men will not have much use for any but the oyster-knives, as I am informed they eat with their fingers.” Cooper is probably best-known for his Leatherstocking tales of American frontier life, particularly The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which are full of archetypal male warriors and woodsmen, and women in need of rescue. Earlier than the muscle man was the strongman, a term first found in the 1700s referring particularly to men who displayed their strength professionally, in circuses and carnivals. It was a circus strongman who popularized the new idea of the bodybuilder in the later 1800s. The German-born athlete and circus performer Eugen Sandow developed his system of weight training and exercise which, in 1901, reached a high point in the first major competition of bodybuilding in London’s Royal Albert Hall, where one of Sandow’s fellow-judges was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bodybuilding had originally referred to the construction of vehicle bodywork, but with Sandow’s help the physical development sense soon took over after its first use in the Derby Mercury in 1896, describing the “excellent ‘body building’ work” of the Physical Director of the city’s YMCA.

Probably the most famous bodybuilder of the twentieth century is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took Hollywood by storm in the 1980s and 90s. A quotation about his 1982 film Conan the Barbarian gives the OED its first quotation for the sense of the word overexercised, meaning “exercised physically to a greater extent than is usual or desirable”: a New York Times reviewer described the film as “a sort of swaggering, overexercised ‘Jason and the Argonauts’”, concluding that “Mr Schwarzenegger with his extraordinary Mr. Universe physique, is too much.” Such opinions did nothing to slow our hero’s steadily growing fame, however, and his book Arnold’s Bodybuilding for Men was a bestseller. It is quoted in the OED entries for the verbs train and pump (in the physical training sense, these words have been around since 1795 and 1973, respectively), and Schwarzenegger’s name also turns up in quotations in the OED entries for words like posedown (the final stage in a bodybuilding competition), and studly (handsome, masculine, macho). The noun stud has been in continuous use since the very earliest period of English, meaning the establishment where stallions and mares are kept for breeding. It was not until much later, however, that the term evolved to refer to an individual stallion and, from there, to a human male of great sexual potency and attraction. Stallion itself is used in a similar way, and is first recorded to mean a man of wanton ways as early as the 1500s. The third edition of Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796 defined a stallion as “a man kept by an old lady for secret services.” Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, the boxer Rocky Balboa, was famously known as “the Italian Stallion”, a name also applied to Stallone himself.

Virile and virtuous

The word macho has been in English use since the 1940s, and is derived from the Spanish macho, meaning “masculine”. Unlike the Spanish word (which can be used neutrally), English macho always has overtones of aggression and ostentation; the macho man is, in many cases, faintly ridiculous and unpleasant. Like macho, the adjective virile also has its roots in a word meaning “masculine”: the Latin virilis, from vir, “man”. In early use, virile sat rather closer to its etymology and meant simply a person or thing that had qualities thought appropriate to the male gender. In 1490, Caxton’s translation of the Æneid referred to the “fortytude viryle of wymmen” – the masculine bravery of women. Nowadays, of course, we understand virile in a more narrow sense, as referring to a man’s sexual potency. This sense may well have come to the fore because of the use of the term virile member to refer to the penis, a usage which has been around since at least the 1500s (originating as a translation of Latin membrum virile). Latin vir is also the root of the word virtue, which is therefore also etymologically connected to manliness. It’s not all good news for male-derived words, though: churlish, which now has the primary meaning “surly” or “rude”, comes from a Germanic root meaning “man” (the same root gave us the name Carl.) A masculine man might be a shining paragon of virtue; he might also be a grumpy git.

Now that we’ve sorted out the beefcake from the horsemeat, watch out for the next instalment of this blog post, where we’ll take a look at some womanly words and the phenomenon of the blonde bombshell.

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