Grow a pair of what?
Let’s see, what comes in pairs that humans might need? Eyes, ears, arms, legs, lungs, breasts, kidneys? No. “Grow a pair” refers to testicles.
Why would someone need to “grow a pair” of testicles? Obviously, in order to “man up.” Being a man requires courage and strength. Men who are cowards must lack the parts that give them courage and strength so they must grow some.
Lack of courage and strength have been known by other metaphors. Not having “the guts,” “the backbone,” or “the nerve” has largely been replaced by not having “the balls” to do what is right. Hence, the need to “grow a pair.”
At face value, using male genitals as a metaphor for courage and strength is crass, and, perhaps to some, humorous. It certainly reflects a growing tendency in our culture toward crass and sexualized language to explain everyday human experiences.
On a deeper level, however, much is revealed about the shift in our metaphors about courage and strength. While every human being has guts, nerves and backbone, less than half of the human population has “balls” and lacks the ability to “grow a pair.” Does that mean that these people are not capable of having real strength or displaying real courage?
On a deeper level still, the phrase “grow a pair” reveals a cultural belief that courage and strength are derived from male genitalia. Like with “penis envy,” the phrase coined by Freud to explain the female experience, our world continues to be defined in terms that place the male experience at the center, as normative, while all other experiences and expressions are understood as varying degrees of deviation, other, inferior, or abnormal. Like all human experiences, strength and courage, are understood to be fundamentally male.
Language matters. Use it carefully and wisely, especially if you are in a position of leadership or authority. Be careful how you depict virtues and characteristics such as courage and strength in your words, actions and communications.
Be aware of biases and traps within everyday language that may not reflect your values, intentions or beliefs. Check your own assumptions about male-centeredness and superiority, which come at us in so many forms within our our culture. Use of slang and crass metaphors may actually undermine your desire to be sensitive and inclusive of everyone around you.