With his exhortation that NSA leaker Edward Snowden "man up" and return to the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry employed an expression that has enjoyed  a robust recent history in American politics.

Secretary of State John Kerry. (EPA/Mario Guzman)

Kerry made the demand in an appearance on "CBS This Morning" on Wednesday. Asked about Snowden, Kerry rejected the idea that Snowden behaved properly in fleeing the United States. "The bottom line is this man has betrayed his country, sitting in Russia where he has taken refuge," he said. "You know, he should man up and come back to the United States."

In 2010, after a series of uses of the term by political candidates, language expert Ben Zimmer wrote about the phrase's history as a rhetorical tool. He was reacting to, among other incidents, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle's demand that Sen. Harry Reid "man up," and Sarah Palin's insistence that the Republican Party "man up" and back tea party candidates. Zimmer also pointed to this exhaustive list compiled in October 2010 outlining more than a dozen uses of the phrase prior to that point.

Use of the term, as tracked by Google Trends, peaked in 2011 (thanks to a forgotten TV show).

But it has hardly abated in politics:

  • New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono told Gov. Chris Christie to man up during a debate in the 2013 campaign. (Christie has said the same thing to his predecessor.)
  • An aide to Mitt Romney declared the the 2012 Republican presidential candidate would challenge President Obama to man up on the use of force in Libya.
  • A candidate for Congress from Florida asked that Obama man up and play him in basketball.
  • The New York tabloids have asked both Vice President Biden (Post: "Man up, Biden") and President Obama (Daily News: "Man up, Obama") to man up.

And so on.

Here's Zimmer on the significance of the phrase.

[It] covers a wide range of connotations, from "Don't be a sissy" to "Do the responsible thing." The use of the expression by politicians is ostensibly a call to responsibility and courage in the face of adversity, but the gendered nature of the remark is impossible to ignore — especially when it's used by a woman as a political slight against a man.

There's also subtext to it: It tends to be a demand from someone who is in a powerless (or less powerful) position. Most of the candidates above lost, or were challenging someone or something much more powerful than them. When it comes to Snowden, there's not much Kerry can do, either. Snowden is out of the reach of the United States; Kerry's declaration to NBC on "Today" that "if [Snowden] cares so much about America and he believes in America, he should trust in the American system of justice," seems a lot like he's throwing up his hands.

If Kerry could have Snowden arrested and brought back to the United States in handcuffs, he would. But he can't. So: Man up, Edward. One suspects that he's not likely to accede to Kerry's wish.