wingman, winger

In a NYT Magazine piece on Grabpussy Jr., an arresting mid-page teaser quote:

I searched my mental banks for relevant senses of winger, working my way through wingman first, eventually discovering that the intended sense was the one I came to last. You really have to have the context: in particular, who is speaking, for what purposes.

The NYT piece is “[REDACTED] Jr. Is Ready. But for What, Exactly?: Of all the president’s children, he has the strongest connection to the politics, voters and online disinformation ecosystem that put his father in the White House. What will he do with it?” by Jason Zengerle on-line 8/24/20; in print 8/30/20. The relevant passage:

To those who know [REDACTED] Jr., his attraction to politics was not surprising. “He was the only family member who talked politics before his dad ran for president,” the person close to him says. “He’s the only one of the kids who would have found a way into politics if the dad hadn’t run for office.” And those politics have always tilted hard to the right. Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2018, Stephen K. Bannon, the [REDACTED] adviser who had run the right-wing website Breitbart, said, “I’d describe Don Jr., who I think very highly of, as a guy who believes everything on Breitbart is true.” Or as Sam Nunberg, an adviser to [REDACTED]’s 2016 campaign, says, “Don’s a real winger, and I mean that as a compliment.”

The relevant lexical items, from NOAD:

noun wingman: 1 [a] a pilot whose aircraft is positioned behind and outside the leading aircraft in a formation. [b] a man who helps or supports another man; a friend or close associate: I thought he might need a wingman — he was quite tired and emotional. 2 another term for winger (sense 1) .

noun winger  1 an attacking player on the wing in soccer, hockey, and other sports. 2 [in combination] a member of a specified political wing: a left-winger.

winger sense 2 is the intended sense in the quote from Steve Bannon: Grabpussy Jr. is a committed right-winger.

On sense 1 (which is the one I retrieved first, to my considerable puzzlement), from Wikipedia:

In certain sports, such as football, field hockey, ice hockey, handball, rugby union, lacrosse and rugby league, winger is a position. It refers to positions on the extreme left and right sides of the pitch, or playing field (the “wings”). In American football and Canadian football, the analogous position is the wide receiver. Wingers often try to use pace to exploit extra space available on the flanks that can be made available by their teammates dominating the centre ground. They must be wary however of not crossing the touchline, or sidelines, and going out of play. In sports where the main method of scoring involves attacking a small goal (by whatever name) in the centre of the field, a common tactic is to cross the ball to a central teammate.

Wingman. A piece of the American sociocultural world that combines two different sets of practices: the conventions of close male friendship (buddies, in the vernacular); and those of the heterosexual marketplace, in which young men compete for sexual access to or romantic attachment to young women.

From Wikipedia, where the relationship is carefully described in (unrealistically) gender-neutral terms, though the history is of a male practice:

Wingman (or wingmate) is a role that a person may take when a friend needs support with approaching potential romantic partners. People who have a wingman can have more than one wingman. A wingman is someone who is on the “inside” and is used to help someone with intimate relationships. In general, one person’s wingman will help him or her avoid attention from undesirable prospective partners or attract desirable ones, or both

The term originated in combat aviation in various international military aviation communities shortly before and after the advent of fighter jets. Pilots flying in formation, especially when in combat training or in actual aerial combat, refer to the pilot immediately next to them (traditionally on their right, sometimes on either side) as their “wingman” (the man on their wing). In actual aerial combat pilots are often trained to attack and defend in pairs watching out for each other, thereby making the term even more clearly demonstrated.

The term is also very commonly used in combat aviation on longer range aviation patrols which are often carried out by only two fighter planes, sometimes manned by only two pilots depending on the type of aircraft. On these two plane patrols (Air Force) or “watches” (Naval Aviators flying protective patterns around surface vessels on timed intervals) referring to the pilot that an aviator is teamed with on patrol as their “wingman” is very common.

In 2007, sociologist David Grazian [“The Girl Hunt: Urban Nightlife and the Performance of Masculinity as Collective Activity”, Symbolic Interaction 30 (2): 221–43] interviewed male students at the University of Pennsylvania on their dating habits, and postulated that the wingman role was part of collective “girl hunt” rituals that allow young men to collectively perform masculinity. Grazian writes:

“the wingman serves multiple purposes: he provides validation of a leading man’s trustworthiness, eases the interaction between a single male friend and a larger group of women, serves as a source of distraction for the friend or friends of a more desirable target of affection, can be called on confirm the wild (and frequently misleading) claims of his partner and, perhaps most important, helps motivate his friends by building up their confidence. Indeed, men describe the role of the wingman in terms of loyalty, personal responsibility and dependability, traits commonly associated with masculinity…”

… The term ‘wingman’ was popularised by its use in the 1986 romantic military action drama film Top Gun, in which US Navy pilots are shown in a bar pursuing women in pairs, similarly to their in-flight tactics. Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) is the best friend and wingman to Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise). In a much-quoted line from the end of the film, Maverick’s former archrival, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), shows his respect to Maverick when he says, “You can be my wingman anytime.”

Component 1: the buddy. Close and supportive same-sex friendships are a significant phenomenon in a great many cultures, especially important for young unattached people, where they can serve as a buffer against same-sex competitiveness over social dominance and against the stresses of negotiating the sexual marketplace.

For American men, this relationship goes under the label buddy; your buddy is someone you can confide in safely and will dependably support your interests, and you do the same for him. Having a buddy is especially important for young unattached men, more so for such men in threatening or unfamiliar circumstances, as in the military (where the significance of having a buddy is so great that men will often disregard differences in class and race and ethnicity and religion and so on that would ordinarily keep them far apart, in order to forge a deep and mutually supportive friendship).

The wingman is an American specialization of the buddy relationship.

Component 2: negotiating the sexual marketplace (for straightfolk). A risky, possibly humiliating, sometimes even dangerous undertaking for the participants. Which is why people  are inclined to enlist the help of friends in the process. Friends who can help scout out the territory, smooth the negotiations, and provide emotional support.

The wingman is (again an American) rather elaborate conventionalization of this role for young men negotiating the (straight) sexual marketplace.



2 Responses to “wingman, winger”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    There’s also wingnut, used to refer to someone who spouts crazy stuff, usually political and especially right-wing. Presumably suggested by the “wing” portion of right-wing plus nut=”crazy person”, with the added advantage that there is in fact a piece of hardware called a wingnut.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The hardware term is nice: it’s a nut in the hardware sense, with metaphorical wings, which you can turn by hand to tighten the nut. (Somewhere in one of my postings I’ve noted the multiplicity of meanings of nut.)

Leave a Reply