HE WOULD BE, they said, a miracle of social engineering.

In a mere decade -- from the first overture of the women's movement to the final trembling crescendo of male self-abasement in the early '80s -- he had shed the porcine proclivities of a lifetime and Become Attentive to Her Needs. He was the New Man: Homo post-feministicus, with his consciousness raised and his guard lowered, sensitive as an FM tuner, chummy as a spaniel, aggressive as a clam. The perfect modern mate for the perfectly modern woman.

Except . . . something went wrong. The behavioral surgeons had worked with Frankensteinian zeal to refurbish the nasty cadaver of macho exploitation with freshly programmed sensibilities. From Ms. to Marin County the ideological lightning flashed; the national lab burst aglow. The creature stirred. And through the roiling smoke emerged a shambling, bewildered thing with eyes like an orphan lemur, reeking of earnestness and Paco Rabanne, and generally looking like something that crawled out of a Charmin commercial.

The Wimp.

Stripped of dominance, he had lost his will; told to be caring, he had become obeisant. Liberated women who'd prepped to take on the toughest troglodytes in American civilization found him appalling -- a beanbag as a companion, a dud as a lover. Surprise became contempt, contempt a trend.

And suddenly this season the air is cracking with backlash, and a term out of mint since the '50s is back in currency:

*"No Wimps, Please!" insists a personal ad in New York magazine. No, this "attractive, slender Jewish lady, 25, 5'7" . . . seeks successful, sincere, sensitive, sensual, confident gentleman."

*Ms. magazine puts the word in panic-size type on its August cover -- revealing thereby the widespread familiarity of the concept -- and ponders the purport of wimpdom inside.

*Novelist and professor George Stade, writing on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, bewails the current wimpishness of male characters in fiction ("the boys have given up looking for ways to become men"), indicting even the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Leonard Michaels: "Their protagonists no longer venture forth; they retreat, admit defeat, take the heat, all with a sheepish grin," having regressed "to the preadolescent condition of mama's boys, alternatively bratty and eager to please."

*The August issue of New Woman issues a tongue-in-chic warning: "The Wimp not only eats quiche, he makes it. But you'll have to pay for the ingredients." Of course, "what he lacks in funds he makes up for in . . . sensitivity, cultural interests and is so self-effacing!" Unfortunately, he lacks "a sense of purpose," even in bed: "It's like leading a man around on the dance floor -- there's no law against it; it just doesn't feel right."

*News accounts report a couchward rush into psychiatric treatment by males baffled at changing definitions of masculinity. The boys, says Laurie Klein Evans, a long Island family therapist, "want reassurance that they can be both tender and male. But even though women are asking men to be more tender and express their feelings, sometimes they actually want them to be a silent pillar of strength." Moreover, she told The New York Times, "couples still often subscribe to the unspoken contract that the man should pretend he's the strong one, and the woman should be the weak, emotional one."

*And if that weren't enough, a new survey from the University of Florida has found that men are more worried about the effects of contraceptives on women's health than are women themselves. The Cult of Sensitivity

Still, the backlash might never have snapped but for a shift in the tectonics of the public mood. By the late '70s, the Cult of the Sensitive Male seemed to be hardening into permanent ideology. Alan Alda was enshrined as the Emulative Ideal; a monstrous popularity was accorded the most wan or flocculent personalities (Phil Donahue, Bob Newhart, Chevy Chase, Richard Simmons, etc. ad nauseam); former studs were softening their images (e.g., Burt Reynolds in "The End"). And meister-wimps like Woody Allen -- whose feckless, neurotic shtick depended for its humor on contrast with traditional masculine behavior -- seemed less funny as they actually approximated the New Man.

(Though he still haunts us even in sleep. Social psychologist Dee Burton, who suddenly began dreaming about Woody Allen a few years ago, later discovered that the "phenomenon" was widespread. She interviewed 112 men and women claiming nocturnal visitations from Allen and then wrote a book, "I Dream of Woody," published this year. The puny apparition has "helped men realize they can express their fears," she reports in Psychology Today. They can "admit their insecurities about women and their lack of athletic prowess and still feel good about themselves as men.")

Then came the Reagan landslide, a resurgence of jingo patriotism and "bootstrap" economics, a mounting intuition that the country had gone soft. It found its popthink counterpart in the Nautilus beefcake boom, the incessant spew of Rockyesque cinema heroics from Road Warriors to Karate Kids, the return of Detroit muscle cars and sales of four-wheel-drive vehicles, paperback ridicule of preppy-yuppie-uppity manners and an overall belligerent atavism.

In that climate, it was no accident that the term "wimp" returned to currency. America seldom had heard the discouraging word since the late-'50s era of Greaser Chic. Early in 1980, astonished readers of The Boston Globe found this headline on the lead editorial about President Carter's anti-inflation program: "More Mush From the Wimp." It turned out to be the result of a prankster snafu. But those four letters suddenly named a nagging vestigial contempt in the national brain.

The locus classicus of wimpery in American culture is found in "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn"; the Ur-wimp in Tom's brother Sid -- the dapper creepling we publicly reward but covertly revile for his prissy rote piety. In "Love and Death in the American Novel," Leslie Fiedler draws the antitheses: "What then is the difference between the Good Good Boy and the Good Bad Boy, between Sid Sawyer, let us say, and Tom? The Good Good Boy does what his mother must pretend that she wants him to do: obey, conform; the Good Bad Boy does what she really wants him to do: deceive, break her heart a little, be forgiven."

This distinction, mutatis mutandis, is virtually instinctive in American boys, who traditionally use "wimp" to describe a kid between, say, 10 and 16, who displays an indifference to or outstanding ineptitude at sports (read aggression); deference of manner; willingness to let others direct the course of his life -- a k a Club Med Complex; deficiency of brute mammalian vigor. In short, the characteristics of post-feminist man. (Note: Other leading indicators -- infatuation with algebra, chess or Radio Shack circuit boards, use of plastic shirt-pocket pencil holders or calculator holsters -- are characteristic of nerdism, not wimpdom. No moral onus attaches to the latter genus: Nerds are born; wimps are wimps by choice.)

By 1982, the word had taken on a vicious opprobrium -- as Sen. Adlai Stevenson found out in the Illinois governor's race. He not only shot himself in the foot, but blew away his entire lower torso by complaining that his opponent had called him "some kind of wimp." Chicago's cackle-prone columnists kept the charge alive and Stevenson lost by a narrow margin. And Prince George's County Executive Larry Hogan slung the same rhetorical mudpie that year at his Senate race opponent, Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Soon The New York Times' editorial page was speaking of "the wimp factor" in national politics.

As the months passed, Ed Meese reportedly damned as "wimps" some unruly Senate Republicans; Ten Speed Press published "Computer Wimp" (for screen-pecked losers dominated by their own machines); and columnist Ellen Goodman invoked the word in describing how the president's voice often gurgles with emotion. But "wimp" would not achieve full national notoriety until women found in it a term to match their misery. How to Spot a Wimp

Just because your guy weighs 134 in his Hush Puppies, keeps Leo Buscaglia's picture over his love seat and looks like he's been ranching gypsy moths in his hair doesn't necessarily mean he's a wimp. They come in all ages and configurations from pin-striped to steel-toed. But the majority are well-educated men in their thirties whose formative years overlapped the high tide of feminism -- especially those formerly married to women who "found themselves" and split, leaving the bereft hubby with a repertory of Enlightened Habits.

Nor is Washington, for all its distended egos and solicitor-eat-barrister competition, exempt. As early as last fall, a witty writer named Deborah Laake was complaining in the City Paper that the type (i.e., a "wormboy, someone who does not want to carry the ball," who "watches his life like a movie and flees when it makes demands on him") had become so ubiquitous here that "their behavior has come to seem normal."

Nonetheless, some indications are obvious. Is he the type your mother thinks is "wonderful"? Does he entrap you into inviting him to dinner, choosing the restaurant and then splitting the check? Bring you back to his apartment, put on Pachelbel's Canon or some Randy Newman ditty, get an oozy seepage look around the eyes and then insist that you really listen to it? Invariably order poached salmon? Say things like, "I'm so glad you don't smoke" or "I can really identify with women now"?

Does he wear self-consciously "sensitive" fabrics, old flannel shirts so well-washed they suck the very humidity out of the air? Have two full sets of Conran's china and a $400 coffee machine, or express dismaying exuberance on the subject of sauce be'arnaise? Want to introduce you to all his friends after the first date? Send Boynton cards? Odds are you've got one on the hoof.

In ambiguous cases, watch for one of the six dread early-warning signs:

1. Inability to Initiate Action

A 28-year-old single woman, no stranger to modish anomie and "excessive deference" from the New Man, describes a prototypical case:

"There was this Ivy League lawyer who started calling me every day just to say hi. One days he says, 'Will you be in tonight?' That's all -- not 'Then let's get together' or 'Let's have dinner.' Just 'Well, then, I'll call you tonight.' " Early in the evening, the phone began to ring every 15 minutes. She couldn't face picking up the receiver, but "by 9 it was every 3 1/2 minutes and finally I couldn't stand it anymore. I answered and right away he said, 'I thought you were going to be home tonight -- it's 9 p.m.!' I said, 'But I'm home now.' 'But I've been calling you.''Well, here I am.' 'But I've been calling you for two hours!' It was sort of like, 'Whip me, beat me.' "

2. Obsessive Culinarity

"After we'd gone out to dinner, he invited me up to listen to his Frank Sinatra records," says a hungrier-but-wiser professional woman. "And there, sitting on the coffee table, was this lavish gourmet snack all beautifully laid out -- cheese straws, cornichons, gourmet cheeses, pa te' -- with plastic wrap on the tops of everything. Even candles ready." Her uneasy sensation that he was letting the chow do his talking for him was reinforced as she glimpsed, at the periphery of vision, over on the kitchen counter, another neatly wrapped preparation of what seemed to be . . . yes . . . breakfast! "Vie de France croissants and a little pot of marmalade. I said, 'Well, no way!' The presumptuous wimp!"

3. Prefab Identity

Because your wimp suffers from degraded self-esteem, he often gravitates toward packaged chattels for image just as he uses shrink-wrapped ideologies for his beliefs. Take a covert inventory of his belongings and rate them as follows. (If he scores over 25, get an unlisted phone number. And a wig.)

Complete Ralph Lauren Chaps wardrobe (9). Complete Ralph Lauren cowboy wardrobe (20). More than three ounces of any Aramis product (5). Wok (2); bamboo steamer (3); wok tools (5). Signed first editions from The Franklin Library (7). Datsun 280-Z (10); with vanity plates (12); turbo model with stripe kit (15). Skin moisturizer or "scruffing lotion" (15); entire Clinique for Men product line (35). Saul Steinberg "New York" poster (50).

4. Lib-Speak Glossolalia

Gary Cooper's barbaric "Yup" spoke volumes. But the Wimp, religiously devoted to the ameliorative ideal of "talking it out," will speed-jabber woozy liberationist cliche's like a tobacco auctioneer on Benzedrine. Hit the asphalt at the first mention of: "nurturing relationships"; "mutual" anything; "responsive to the needs of the other"; or "I sense that you're feeling . . ."

Even when you've plainly stated that you don't want to see him again, you may encounter what is sometimes called United Nations Syndrome. "They just won't take 'no' for an answer," says an erstwhile veteran wimp-dater. "In fact, they won't take 'yes' for an answer. No matter what you say, they want to talk about it. You tell them in no uncertain terms to get lost, and suddenly they're calling you up and saying, 'Look -- I've been thinking about what you said, and . . .' "

5. Inappropriate and Extravagant Candor

Otherwise known as the You- Haven't-Got-the-Guts-to-Use-That-Gun Ploy: A Washington woman was repeatedly hounded by a persistent coworker to accompany him for a drink. Three times she begged off with the time-honored I'm really busy. "Three in a row ought to do it, you'd think," she says. But no. "Finally, he came up and said, 'Well, if you don't like me and you don't want to get together, why don't you just tell me?' Well, I don't want to tell a stranger that I can't stand him -- so like an idiot, I said 'No, no, it isn't that' -- and so the whole thing went on."

Calling off a relationship can be even worse, she says. "I want him to feel it's me, it's us, it's anything else -- it's not him! But with these guys, it's like 'If it doesn't work out, there must be something very wrong with me!" Prompting a noisy deluge of self-loathing till the lady relents or goes deaf.

6. Immoderate Physical Servility:

If the curse of the preraised male consciousness was performance anxiety, the Wimp-as-Lover suffers from Service Anxiety. "I appreciate a man wanting to please and all that," says one uncommonly spunky young professional woman. But wimps take it to discomforting extremes: "There's a lot of plaintive 'What do you like?' and 'What should I do?' " Rare nowadays, she says, is the gent with "a sense of 'I like this and I know you're going to like it too' -- someone with a certain agenda." Wimpismo

But what's a brother to do? Male rebuke and humiliation are inescapable, even in the unlikeliest places. Consider this quotation:

"Machismo has no place on the trail, so if you're dealing with the macho four-wheeler you already know how to characterize him. Machismo is that form of stupidity which manifests itself through various self-destructive activities. Trouble is, the destruction is not always limited to oneself." This item did not appear in some doctrinaire tree-kook digest with a name like "Ladies' Jeep & Chainsaw" or "Woodsperson." No, it's straight from June '84 issue of hard-hatted, red-blooded Four Wheeler magazine.

And the culture abounds in epicene role models. The cover of the latest Mademoiselle plugs a confessional article by Peter Nelson called "This Is How a Man's Heart Breaks." His live-in girlfriend Lucy moves out, and when he finds out she's sleeping with somebody else, "it dawned on me she was serious about ending us." (No flies on this boyo.) "The night I found out about him, I threw a loony. While Lucy was off somewhere (probably taking refuge in his arms), I trashed our apartment, kicked a hole in the door, screamed and threw plants, until the neighbors called the cops." (Some readers may be getting an inkling as to why Lucy left.) And when he betakes himself to the home of a married couple who let him sleep in their son's bed, "I hugged his stuffed animals and cried." He Tries to Forget by playing Asteroids ("pretending each Asteroid was Lucy"), getting a doctor to dose him with Valium ("but he refused to refill it for me when I'd finished the bottle. I begged him") and finally trying the old hair of the dog: "Twice I took a woman to bed, and both times I ended up crying." (We wouldn't want to have this guy's Kleenex bill.)

There is even a National Organization for Changing Men, now three years old and 500 strong (if that's the word), which convened in Washington this summer. Among the hot topics: Getting in touch with your "feminine side," escaping the macho image and assessing blame for "rape culture." Said one participant, "The biggest struggle for the New Male is to find other men with whom he can communicate." Judging from the boys' ample display of huddle-hugging and snake-dancing, he's probably got something there.

Worse yet, only a few weeks ago a subspecies of elegant wimpery was certified in that bulliest of public pulpits, The New York Times Magazine, which announced the arrival of "The New Man." (Fortunately, the announcement of a New Something in a major news organ often signals that the notion is already antique. Remember the New Nixon? A certain salutary dubiety may be appropriate here.)

"Today, a new man is at last emerging," writes feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich, with evident disdain. This evolutionary marvel, she says, is "concerned -- some might say obsessed -- with his physical health and fitness. He is an avid and style-conscious consumer, not only of clothes but of food, home furnishings and visible displays of culture. Finally, and in a marked reversal of the old masculinity, he is concerned that people find him, not forbearing or strong, but genuine, open and sensitive." Marriage? Quel horreur! The NM has no desire to be a lunch-bucket vassal in a 10-pound pair of Monkey Ward work shoes, faced with not only "psychic stagnation and sexual monotony, but ulcers, heart disease and an early death" -- which symptoms, Ehrenreich says, have led to "longstanding male resentment" of the traditional, Pop-as-breadwinner family.

So now, freed by a liberal society from the odium of bachelorhood and by heat'n'eat, drip-dry gadgetry from the rigors of housekeeping, the NM remains unable to make "commitments" (except, of course, to upholstery patterns). But he is exquisitely suited, as one of the NMs told Ehrenreich, "to appreciate things that girls appreciate. Like being able to window-shop, for example. An insensitive guy probably won't stop and look at a dress in a window." Furthermore, he is preoccupied with class distinctions ("upscale" rather than "merely middle class"), and "self-consciously elitist" in his buying habits. His credo thus might be: When you're haut, you're haut. And when you're not, you're nought.

But wimpophobes need not panic. Ehrenreich's sample seems like a perilously slender demographic peg on which to hang a national trend. And meanwhile, the national backlash proceeds apace.

Indeed, the first totem word of the Post-Post-Feminist Era may already have been uttered by the market-sharp managers at Pocket Books. Thanks to material provided by Playgirl magazine's editors, Pocket is doing a very brisk business with two products featuring fleshy pictures of big male bimbos with bulbous musculature: the "A-Hunk-a-Month Calendar" and the "A-Hunk-a-Day Desk Calendar." Liberated? Not likely: These guys look like you couldn't tell if they were even thinking without an encephalogram.

"Hunks are back," effuses the ad campaign, "and they're better than ever."