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"The Man" is a slang phrase that may refer to the government or to some other authority in a position of power. In addition to this derogatory connotation, it may also serve as a term of respect and praise. It was also used as a term for a drug dealer.
The phrase "the Man is keeping me down" is commonly used to describe oppression. The phrase "stick it to the Man" encourages resistance to authority, and essentially means "fight back" or "resist", either passively, openly or via sabotage.
In the Southern U.S. states, the phrase came to be applied to any man or any group in a position of authority, or to authority in the abstract. From about the 1950s the phrase was also an underworld code word for police, the warden of a prison or other law enforcement or penal authorities.
It was also used as a term for a drug dealer in the 1950s and 1960s and can be seen in such media as Curtis Mayfield's "No Thing On Me", William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch, and in the Velvet Underground song "I'm Waiting for the Man", in which Lou Reed sings about going to Uptown Manhattan, specifically Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, to buy heroin.
The use of this term was expanded to counterculture groups and their battles against authority, such as the Yippies, which, according to a May 19, 1969 article in U.S. News and World Report, had the "avowed aim ... to destroy 'The Man', their term for the present system of government". The term eventually found its way into humorous usage, such as in a December 1979 motorcycle ad from the magazine Easyriders which featured the tagline, "California residents: Add 6% sales tax for The Man."
In present day, the phrase has been popularized in commercials and cinema. It was featured particularly prominently as a recurring motif in the 2003 film School of Rock. The film Undercover Brother had as a plot element a fictional organization headed by "The Man", an actual man in charge of oppressing African Americans.
The term has also been used as an approbation or form of praise. This may refer to the recipient's status as the leader or authority within a particular context, or it might be assumed to be a shortened form of a phrase like "He is the man (who is in charge)."
In more modern usage, it can be a superlative compliment ("you da man!") indicating that the subject is currently standing out amongst his peers even though they have no special designation or rank, such as a basketball player who is performing better than the other players on the court. It can also be used as a genuine compliment with an implied, slightly exaggerated or sarcastic tone, usually indicating that the person has indeed impressed the speaker but by doing something relatively trivial.