It is from Crash Course World History. It is at around 5 minute and 30 second. Here is the context:

That meant that the National Assembly, which had been the revolutionary voice of the people, had killed people in an attempt to reign in revolutionary fervor. You see this a lot throughout history during revolutions. What looked like radical hope and change suddenly becomes "The Man" as increasingly radical ideas are embraced.

What does the presenter mean by "The Man" there? Could you please explain the last sentence of the excerpt for me please?

  • I think that it's not fair just copying the information from a link so ... Take a look urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=The%20Man
    – RubioRic
    Jun 8, 2018 at 10:19
  • "The Man" as used here to refer to The Powers That Be is a slang term that became widely used in the US during the rebellious 1960s.
    – TimR
    Jun 8, 2018 at 12:22
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    You should try some other sites because, I have to say, that Crash Course site is full of horrible writing. That text is about French history, right? Are they referring to Robespierre in that bit? He really did not become "the man" for a while, then, was also executed, a victim of his own BS.
    – Lambie
    Jun 8, 2018 at 14:58
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo 60s? I’m sure it’s substantially older than that. Wasn’t it used to refer to white Southern plantation owners? Jun 8, 2018 at 16:11
  • @Konrad Rudolph: I said that it became widely used as a term that referred to The Powers that Be in the 1960s, not that its first use was in the 1960s. I wasn't giving an etymology but an explanation of the use in OP's quote.
    – TimR
    Jun 8, 2018 at 21:43

2 Answers 2


"The Man" is slang for the government, or an authority, commonly with negative connotations.

Your sentence effectively means:

Ideas/changes were implemented in response to what people saw as the authority/power imbalances at the time. However, now those are the new "normal" - those ideas (that were previously considered radical) are being seen as the authority/power systems that need to be challenged.

From Wiki:

a slang phrase that may refer to the government or to some other authority in a position of power

From Merriam-Webster:

  1. the Man , somewhat old-fashioned : the police
  2. the white people who are seen as having power in the U.S. : the white establishment

From Collins:

the person having power or authority over one; esp., as orig. used by U.S. blacks, a white man

It refers to the people, or systems of power, that are seen to control you (or society). It is generally used with negative connotations - that they are the authority which holds you back, or in some way is causing problems in your life.

For example:

the Man is keeping me down

Which refers to how the people in power, or systems of authority - are preventing somebody from succeeding in life.

It's relatively hard to track back a good origin of the phrase, as it has been used by numerous groups through the years. Including (but not limited to):

  • The early 20th centuary underworld crime ring - where "The Man" derived from "The Boss", who was the prison warden, and then over time - anybody/system association with him and the police.

  • African-American culture, especially during the civil rights era - referring to "the white man", who was seen to control society (as at the time, the government and authority systems were almost entirely comprised of white men).

  • Hippie culture, from the 1960s, where "The Man" referred to the govenment and authority systems that were seen to be reducing people's freedoms.

Note that these uses of The Man are not the same as the approving/praising phrase "You're the man!".


I wouldn't call it a historical saying, even if it is used in a text about history. I believe it is very much a modern saying with political connotations.

"The Man" is often used to refer to a governmental authority in a pejorative, or negative way.

For example a governmental employee might be said to be "working for The Man".

But it doesn't always refer to the governmental authority - it can be used to refer to almost any kind of authority figure, or organisation - for example a high school principle, an employer, or a particular subsection of the government such as a government agency.

In your quotation I understand it to mean that political revolutions attempt to overthrow "The Man", which they see as oppressive - but ironically in doing so they supplant them and become an authority themselves which other people may then regard as oppressive and label "The Man".

  • 1
    The man is also used in: You da man. And there it is not pejorative.
    – Lambie
    Jun 8, 2018 at 14:56
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    @Lambie this is true, but many words can be pejorative or not based on context or small grammar changes. "That's sick, dude" could be an exclamation of admiration or disgust, depending on speaker, context, and emphasis. Slang is hard to pin down.
    – Tiercelet
    Jun 8, 2018 at 19:15

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