“The Man” is a term used to describe any person or organization in power. It may be applied by blacks to describe whites in power, or it may be applied by any countercultural movement to describe the group they see as the oppressor. Many people will also describe their boss as “The Man,” especially when there is a perceived case of oppression or domination.
As a positive term, “The Man” may be used to describe someone who is at the pinnacle of his craft, or somehow possessing a perceived superiority over all others. This sense of the word dates back to at least the mid-19th century, when it can be seen in many written texts. This sense of “The Man” in the modern world is primarily linked with African American slang, but over the past few years it has become more pervasive throughout society and is now frequently heard in many segments of American culture.
The first recorded use of the phrase “The Man” to describe a boss figure shows up in 1918, but it is likely that the phrase had its origins much earlier than that. Some historians have suggested that “The Man” was a shortening of the phrase “Bank Man” used by African Americans in the post-Civil War South, describing someone who was constantly hassling them about failing to make payments on time. The term then became generalized to anyone who hassled a group of people, and eventually just to anyone who was in a position of dominance that they were perceived to be abusing.
Although used for decades before, it wasn’t until the 1960s that “The Man” began to see widespread usage in the United States. It was used early on by the black militant movement to describe the white oppressors that the movement was fighting against. A number of newspaper quotes from the era use the term, and it quickly gained currency, both among black activists and those who struggled in solidarity with them.
By the late 1960s “The Man” was being used by a number of different countercultural groups to describe the perceived oppressors they were fighting against. Most often “The Man” described the government or a specific government group, but it could also be applied to a single individual, seen as particularly representative of larger oppressive policies. The term may also be used to describe an amorphous, unspecified agency of oppression, seen as being responsible for any number of ills in the world.
There are a number of common phrases that use the term, generally in the pejorative sense. For example, if you are feeling that your life is not going according to plan, or that you can’t catch a break, you might say that “The Man is keeping you down.” This implies that an outside force is actively seeking to keep you from succeeding. When you are setting out to struggle against an established force in the world, especially in a radical or protest-oriented fashion, you might talk about “Sticking it to The Man.”