'Straw Man' Origin

Mignon Fogarty
1-minute read

How one argument came to be called a "straw man"

Last week, I told you what a straw man argument is, but I heard from a few listeners who were disappointed that I didn't explain why it's called a straw man argument in the first place. So that's where I’m going to start this week.

Online Etymology Dictionary says that the phrase “man of straw” was first used to describe an imaginary opponent in the 1620s.

Here's one of the earliest examples I could find in a Google Books search of the phrase “straw man" being used in the context of a debate. It's in a periodical called The Chronicle published in 1878 by the students of the University of Michigan, and the anonymous author appears to be quoting another article from 1875, which is earlier than the citations for this kind of use that are shown in Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary: 

“The average debater knows no finer fun than belaboring a man of straw. How often have we heard that ambitious disputant, in full flush of victory, fashion with his creative tongue that silliest of all fools—the straw man. Into the straw man’s mouth are put impossible propositions, and when he has been made to utter them, the speaker proper proceeds to show what an utter a** this straw man is.”

It’s possible that the phrase originated even earlier, but it looks like the name really does come from the idea of propping up an imaginary man of straw or scarecrow as a ridiculous opponent who would be easy to defeat.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.