Toxic masculinity

ImageThe phrase toxic masculinity seems to be much in the news these days. As we all know, recent years have seen a number of “strong man” leaders emerge all over the world, generally displaying exaggerated macho attitudes which seem to strike a chord in large sectors of the population who feel left behind by the potent cocktail of economic stagnation, increasing social division and social change which have come with globalization. At the same time the #MeToo movement has been active in naming and shaming prominent male figures whose power and sense of entitlement has led them to act abusively and with impunity towards women.

It is, then, perhaps hardly surprising that the two words toxic and masculinity have come to be used together so often. All of our dictionaries are of course based on language corpora, and corpus data from October 2017 to September 2018 contains 1,724 citations of toxic masculinity. Astonishingly, this represents nearly 25% of all uses of the word masculinity in the corpus during that period.

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If we look, though, at the Oxford English Corpus from 2014 (those far-off days before Trump, Weinstein et al.), there are only three citations:

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So as we can see, developments in society have led to this expression becoming rapidly more common.  But let’s look in a bit more detail at how the use of the word toxic – which has just been announced as Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2018 – has evolved.

The prime meaning of the word toxic is, of course, “poisonous”, as we can see from the entry in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:

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The word derives, not surprisingly, from the Latin toxicus:

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It seems, though, that it is only in very recent times that the word has begun to be used in a figurative sense, to mean “poisonous” in a non-physical sense. The first citation of this type of use is in relation to debt, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as late as 1990:

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This example does now of course seem quite prescient, given the origins of the financial crisis that would hit the world economy some 17 years later and that would in turn lead to the coining of toxic masculinity itself.

The figurative use of the word toxic seems to have mushroomed since 1990, though, and now it is very common. In addition to the 1,724 citations for toxic masculinity, there are in the same corpus over 1,000 for toxic environment and over 800 for toxic relationship, for example.

As well as the debt sense highlighted above, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary does cover this relatively new figurative use, in relation to people:

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Because of its core meaning of “poisonous”, the word toxic is clearly a powerful one in a figurative context, with strongly negative overtones. If an issue is politically toxic, it is certainly something that no politician will want to dirty their hands with. And so toxic masculinity is invariably viewed as a negative phenomenon (if you want to use a somewhat more neutral term, you could try hypermasculinity).

And what about masculinity? Sadly, it seems from our corpus that masculinity itself is today often viewed negatively, though perhaps this is not so surprising given the social context of our times. Here are some of the most common adjectival collocates:

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Just how recent the figurative use is seems quite remarkable given how common it is these days, but this shows how quickly the meaning of words can and does change, and how quickly we get used to the new meanings and collocations, as if they had been part of the language for centuries. And as the world continues to change and language evolve at breakneck speed, hopefully we shall see some less toxic masculinities evolve too.

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Before becoming an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, Mark Temple lived another life as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America.

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