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Trying to grasp manhandle

BY NICHOLAS KELLY | FEBRUARY 25, 2009 7:39 AM

Audio: The author reads his column


People have favorites. Favorite color, favorite team, favorite movie/book/painting/teenage mutant ninja turtle — people will gravitate toward, identify with, and vehemently defend a favorite on even the strangest of topics (as, obviously, any cursory glance of the Internet would’ve told you).

Some people may even have a favorite word.

Or if not a favorite word, a word that catches their ear, a word they sometimes find themselves wondering about, a word that seems curious beyond its dictionary meaning.

For me, recently, that word has been “manhandled.”

It’s a word that fascinates me, that begs contemplation, that seems to demand some sort of cultural or etymological explanation because, well, as it stands, it’s just sounds too goddamn creepy.

I mean, really, say it: “manhandled.”

It’s the type of word you’ll then repeat a couple of times and begin to wonder to yourself, what, exactly, it’s supposed to mean. According to Merriam-Webster, there are at least two contemporary definitions of the word: “to move or do by human strength only, without mechanical aids,” or “to handle roughly.” However, this simple answer seems to do little to prevent further probing of the word itself, especially when considered in context of its second meaning.

The questions just flow. When exactly does it stop being a case of “handling” and the stuff gets rough enough to call it a case of undeniable “man-handling?” Is there a discernable point at which one can decide that an object has really and truly been handled by a man. Can the distinction between “man-handling” be arrived at as it happens? Or can it only be discerned after the handling event itself that it was truly done in a manly fashion?

What’s more, why must it be that all this rough handling come only from a man? Are we to believe that the word is only effective in its current gender format, and if that is the case, then does the fact that the “manhandle” belongs only to, well, man, not contribute gigantically to its inherent disturbing connotations?

Etymology may answer the question in part, as the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that “manhandle” may have been nautical term dating back to the mid 1800s (and meaning essentially the same as the first definition). Given that female sailors (minus of course dread pirate Kiera Knightly) were in fairly short supply during that period, the masculine connotation almost begins to make sense.

However, the same dictionary suggests that this simple etymology is somewhat contested and points to a much older (and again, far, far, more disturbing) potential origin for the word, one that dates back to the 15th century.

Further compounding the confusing nature of the word and quite simultaneously making it exponentially more unusual (and giggle inducing in our cultural milieu) is that the oldest meaning of word is to “wield a tool.”

Which then leads one to wonder (as manhandling may lead one to do) if that is the reason for the word’s nonexistence in other parts of speech. Though “manhandle” the verb has certainly placed its masculine paws on more than one set of dictionary, and one might (might) be able to roughly shape an argument that it could be an adjective, one can almost guarantee that outside the world of low-budget adult cinema starring, say, a lumberjack or a robot, will someone use that word as a noun.

“Manhandle,” “manhandle,” “man-handle,” it’s a word I just can’t quite get a grasp on, and yet as strange, as hilarious, and as just downright disturbing as the word is, it’s still more than anything mysterious. “Manhandle” is a riddle that I cannot crack, but one I’d rather like to, so much that that I’ve even gone ahead and dedicated 800 words of a respected college newspaper to delving in to the history of a word that sounds like the title of a porno flick.

But the question lingers — what scribe, or salty sea captain, or who knows what, sat down and thought, “manhandled, can’t see any problem with that.”

If there’s any discernable use from this exercise however, I guess it would have to be that it illustrates almost any word can have an abundance of nuance, history, and perhaps even a touch of the inexplicable to it — the inherent sort of complication that arose when the earliest people went around deciding this means “tree,” this means “water,” and this means “giant-ass creature about to eat me.” It’s the enigma of communication wrapped up into bite-sized chunks of words, and each one has something to contribute to the overall spectrum of language as a whole.

Even if it’s one as supremely creepy as manhandled.


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