“A Man Among Men” – Meaning & Origin (Helpful Examples)

The idiom we’re discussing in this article is a great example of a contranym, a word or phrase that has two opposing meanings. We can use it to describe both exemplary and ordinary men.

This article will explore the origin and various uses of the idiom “a man among men.”

What Does “A Man Among Men” Mean?

“A man among men” has two meanings: First, an ordinary man, having the same skills, worth, and level of social acceptance as other men in society. Second, an extraordinary man who stands out among his social peers, especially if he is seen as a leader.

a man among men meaning

Many people are confused about which one is correct, but actually, they’re both right. While the second definition is more common, the first definition is still used.

When you dig into the language and historical use, both versions make sense. Let’s look at the language first.

Language

“Among” is a preposition with two primary meanings relevant to this idiom:

  1. in between, in the middle of, or otherwise surrounded by other people or things
  2. being a member or a part of a group of people or things

With that in mind, it seems like “a man among man” literally describes a man who is either surrounded by men or considered a member of a group of men. That gives us our first meaning.

However, idioms are rarely literal. So what does history tell us? We’ll dig into the history of “a man among men” below.

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What Is The Origin Of “A Man Among Men”?

Like many idioms, the exact origin of “a man among men” is unclear. We do, however, have some early examples of it being used with both meanings.

Shakespeare, 1607

An early version of this idiom can be found in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” which initially premiered around 1607.

In the play, Cleopatra describes Antony as “My man of men.” In context, she is saying that Antony is an extraordinary man, more remarkable than any other.

Paradise Lost, 1667

One of the earliest examples we have of the exact phrasing “man among men” comes from Book III of John Milton’s 1667 epic poem “Paradise Lost.”

The line reads, “And be thy self Man among men on Earth.”

In this section, Milton is describing Jesus, the son of God, who was to be born as a human on Earth. The capitalization of “Man” here mirror’s the biblical capitalization of “God.”

In this instance, “man among men” is describing an extraordinary man. Jesus, as the son of God, is seen as fundamentally extraordinary.

Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890

The modern version of the idiom also appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1890 novel “The Firm of Girdlestone,”

He wrote, “To her distorted fancy he was a man among men, a hero, all that was admirable and magnificent.”

This is clearly another example of “a man among men” being used to describe an extraordinary man.

Mark Twain, 1892

In his 1892 novel “The American Claimant” Mark Twain wrote, “I am a man among men, on an equal footing with Tom, Dick and Harry.”

Here we see an early example of “a man among man” meaning an ordinary man who is on equal footing with his peers.

From these examples, we can make two primary observations:

  1. Most examples we have of “a man among men” come from literary sources, meaning historically it may have been an example of heightened literary speech rather than colloquial speech
  2. “A man among men” being defined as an extraordinary man may predate its use to describe a man on equal footing with his peers

As with its historical use, in the modern day “a man among men” is considered to be more heightened, literary language. It can be used colloquially, but you’re more likely to see it in a book than hear someone say it out loud.

As for the multiple definitions, both continue to be used in the modern day. However, “a man among men” more commonly describes an extraordinary man.

Examples Of How To Use “A Man Among Men” In A Sentence

Here are some examples of how to use “a man among men” in a sentence.

As an extraordinary man

  • I really admire Clark. He’s really a man among men.
  • He’s my hero, a real man among men.

As a man on equal footing with his peers

  • You’re with your friends, Tommy. You’re a man among men!
  • He was enjoying getting to work with men he was on equal footing with. It wasn’t often he got to feel like a man among men.

“A Man Among Men” – Synonyms

Here are some phrases with the same basic meaning as “a man among men.”

  • A man among social peers
  • A man among equals
  • A man who is a cut above the rest