meaning and history of the term ‘man flu’

The depreciative colloquial term man flu denotes a case of the common cold as suffered by a man, implying that he is exaggerating the debilitating effects of the illness.

It is based on the assumption that there is a clear gender divide when it comes to coping with everyday illnesses like common colds.

(With the apparent exception of the quotation dating from 1999 [see below], in which is used the American-English abbreviation ER (i.e. emergency room), all the earliest uses of man flu occur in Irish English and British English.)

The term is recent. The earliest instance of man flu in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from Tuesday 26th January 1999:

(Usenet newsgroup) Hosp. Stay Nightmare – in misc.health.diabetes:
“The ER doc came in and said it was just a ‘Man Flu’.”

The second-earliest occurrence of man flu is from In search of cold comfort, by Claire Eakins, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Monday 13th January 2003:

The season of winter chills and sniffles has arrived with a vengeance.
“The cold” has descended upon this house and I don’t mean the frosty driveway or chilly mornings. This is the viral category or as a friend calls it “Man flu”!
What a truly wonderful and spot-on description. Man flu, applicable only to those who do not suffer well.

The Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 4th June 2007 reported that man flu had just been included in the 9th edition of the Collins English Dictionary—together with (“after last year’s World Cup”) the noun wags.

The term man flu gained currency in 2006 when the media reported as a genuine medical survey a poll of over 2000 of its readers conducted by the British lads’ mag Nuts. This is what Petra Boynton, lecturer in health services research, University College London, explained in Are reports of “man flu” just Nuts?, published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) of Saturday 25th November 2006:

What’s more worrying, the public believing in a manufactured illness or their not trusting genuine health research?
We may have dismissed men as being overly dramatic when they claimed a cold as flu but last week a press release from Nuts magazine revealed that “man flu” does exist. The magazine, Britain’s biggest men’s weekly title, made the claim after conducting an online survey of its readers.
The poll of 2131 readers showed that 64% of men suffer from a viral illness compared with just 45% of women. Men take on average three days to recover and women take on average only a day and a half. Men spend £18.34 on cold and flu remedies—women spend £12.03. The press release went on to claim that man flu is, “a serious affliction which affects over two thirds of the British male population. Men are more susceptible [and] are affected more severely, with a much slower recovery rate.”
Sadly the wider media reported “man flu” as a genuine health story: “Man flu is not to be sniffed at,” said the Daily Record; “‘Man flu’ no longer a myth,” according to the Independent Online; and “Man flu really exists,” said The Mirror.
Press coverage quoted the magazine’s health correspondent: “We at Nuts always knew that “man flu” was a very real, potentially catastrophic sickness, and are pleased to bring the skepticism [sic] that surrounds this vicious malaise to a close.”
The press release continued: “Let the word be spread that our womenfolk must go that extra mile to care for us when we are stricken with it, so that future shelves can be erected, cars can be maintained and football stadia throughout the land can be well attended.” This places the story in a different context, but the media omitted this quote.
Numerous magazines are no doubt preparing warnings about “man flu.” Other public relations companies will likely use “man flu” to get press coverage. Nuts magazine has done very well. And all because we do not take promotional surveys seriously.
“Man flu” blurs the boundaries between health and market research, but with no protection of research participants, no quality control of the survey, and misdirecting the public with “results.” It is time our research ethics committees paid closer attention to publicity surveys using “health” topics which are supposedly governed by codes of conduct.
When asked, Nuts magazine would not reveal the questions asked in their research, although they did say it was presented to readers as “the man flu survey,” influencing their answers from the outset. The study was obviously not representative because it was completed online with a subsection of Nuts readers. This means it’s biased in favour of male respondents who are by far their biggest market.
We should challenge these dubious promotional surveys. You can complain about the Nuts survey via the Market Research Society. If you have “man flu” you may, of course, need someone to complain on your behalf.

The survey conducted by Nuts was indeed mistaken for a genuine health study, to the extent that, in the following, the Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Friday 17th November 2006 presented its conclusions as truths, without even specifying their origin:

MAN FLU
Yes, men are wimps. They take more time off work with colds they think are flu. They also moan more and fork out more on remedies than their tougher female counterparts.

But, on Monday 7th November 2005, the Irish Independent (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) had reported what seems to be a genuine medical survey:

PROOF THAT ‘MAN FLU’ EXISTS

New research in the UK has shown men take more sick days due to colds and flu than their female counterparts.
A study by Benenden Healthcare found colds and flu were the most common causes for sick leave, with 12.5pc of the working population taking days off because of these conditions.
However, men seem to be the worst affected — with more than 31pc of men taking time off to get over a cold or flu. In comparison, just 22pc of women took sick leave for the same reasons.
“All women know that ‘man flu’ exists and now here is official proof,” said a spokesperson for the healthcare company. “Women have all seen men making a meal of a sniffle and claiming a bit of a cold is a deadly flu virus.
“It is not, however, entirely a laughing matter. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold and although a relatively unserious condition, the symptoms can be very unpleasant and can make it hard to concentrate at work.”

Man flu soon came to be commercially exploited, as illustrated by the following from Rowena Walsh’s health & living section of the Irish Independent (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 17th November 2008—Boots is a pharmacy chain and health and beauty retailer in the United Kingdom and other countries including Ireland:

Man Flu Survival Pack €9.50
There’s nothing as bad as a bout of man flu – no, really, nothing! This little pack is all he needs to get him through, with the softest of tissues, eucalyptus oil, forehead thermometer, lip-salve, and vitamin C effervescent tablets. Not forgetting my favourite bit – a little bell to summon his mate for pillow plumping and tea and sympathy on request.
Available from selected Boots stores now. Check it out on www.boots.com

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