The terms straw man and man of straw are two idioms that mean the same thing, but one is primarily a British term and one is primarily an American term. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. We will examine the meanings of the terms straw man and man of straw, where these idioms came from and where they are primarily used, as well as some examples of their use in sentences.
A straw man or a man of straw is someone who has no substance or someone who is unreliable. These terms are also used to denote something that is a decoy or coverup for an unethical or criminal enterprise. Straw man or man of straw may also be used to mean an idea that is put forward in order to draw the opposition’s attention away from the real problem or argument. Man of straw is also used to mean someone who is financially insolvent. In the 1500s, the term man of straw had a literal meaning, describing an effigy used to practice combat or a scarecrow used in a field to frighten away birds. By the 1620s, the term man of straw to mean an imaginary foe was in use in Britain. The idiom straw man came into use in America in the mid-1800s.
Driven to distraction under Roosevelt’s attacks, Taft said in Massachusetts, “I was a man of straw; but I have been a man of straw long enough; every man who has blood in his body and who has been misrepresented as I have is forced to fight.” (Smithsonian Magazine)
It’s clearly easy enough to throw up the concept of free speech as a straw man to make sure your enemies tiptoe around you, afraid of being seen as un-American. (The State News)