So, have you heard about the Hus-beens?
He's behind his wife all of the way -- and that's where he's going to stay. Celia Walden salutes the newest breed of man
'Oh you mean 'him indoors'?" laughs the woman, grinding the stub of a Marlboro Light into the paving with her court shoe. The other wives cackle along, gathering around the window and peering inside at the object of derision: a cardigan-clad man slumped in a chair on the periphery of the action in the sitting room, nursing a Diet Coke.
In addition to "him indoors", he's known as "the designated driver", "my plus one", "the missus" -- even, after a few too many glasses of Laurent Perrier, "the inseminator", but never what he is: "the Hus-been". That would be brutal.
And yet these male drudges have become an identifiable phenomenon -- and they're everywhere: pushing IVF double prams through the park while the wife's at yogilates; walking three steps behind her, bag-laden from Tesco to the car; being given "curtain lectures" (Hus-been lingo for "being pulled aside by the wife") at parties. They stand outside the ladies' lavatories at charity galas, holding her bag; sit mutely beside her at PTA meetings; and deliver Fionn's forgotten PE kit while she's team-building in New York.
Celebrities have their own whipped list -- topped by whichever film producer/male model Madonna is forcing to shadow her, followed by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; and Homer Simpson and Marge.
'The Hus-been," explains the man who coined the phrase, GQ deputy editor Bill Prince, "is the man for whom those wedding bells have well and truly tolled, a man who mistook his independence for handing in all of his individuality."
"These days, parties are full of them," adds Peter York, author of The Sloane Ranger Handbook. "You'll be talking to the glamorous, successful wife and trying desperately to remember the husband's name."
Hang on, haven't henpecked husbands been around since Adam and Eve ("Oh, for goodness sake, Adam, just eat the bloody thing")?
Maybe, but never before has it been deemed socially acceptable for women to flaunt their superiority and publicly jeer at the men they've chosen to spend their lives with, says the author of The Marriage Delusion: the Fraud of the Rings?, Mike Buchanan.
"Women have always manipulated men on an individual level, but doing it on a social level is a new thing."
"Women used to get their own way, covertly, Jane Austen-style," says writer Mary Killen, "but the Hus-been is something else entirely: it's about these dragons behaving like men, while the men themselves are becoming feminised."
Clinical psychologist Oliver James blames the rise of the Hus-been on the cult of narcissism. "There used to be a stigma against women being wildly self-aggrandising, but now women are overtly narcissistic, drawing attention to themselves in the way that men do."
Only these alpha females are not so much characterised by jobs (although they will predominantly work in TV, banking, publishing, journalism and fashion) as by how busy they are. "They're head of every charity committee," says Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, "involved in every school activity and the ones to organise gigantic dinner parties. They know how to change tyres, sharpen knives and do all the things men used to exist for, prompting their men to slump into a jellylike paralysis."
Happily, the Hus-been is not entirely emasculated. He can be the principal money-earner or the most apparently influential member of the couple (take Sarkozy and the woman currently governing France, Carla Bruni; or Hillary and Bill Clinton; and can, in fact, be very much adored by his wife -- just look at Queen Elizabeth and her blooper-prone royal Hus-been, Prince Philip.
Do not pity the Hus-been, pleads philosopher Alain de Botton: in our technological age, men were always going to become redundant.
"Ever since pure brawn stopped being an absolute necessity with the invention of machines, it was inevitable we'd get here," he says.
"Also, to have been chosen by a successful woman says much more about one's personality, inner talents and virtues, than to have been chosen by a successful man. The Hus-been can take the love of his successful woman as more meaningful than can a woman in a comparable position."
For the wives, however, the outlook may be bleak. "When, in the 1960s, women decided to go for power rather than happiness, that was a sign of what was to come," says Mike Buchanan.
"What we might start to see now is these same women becoming very unhappy, because when a woman puts down a man, she is essentially becoming his mother, and since mothers and sons don't tend to have amorous feelings for one another, it can kill any sexual rapport."
Until that day, when the Hus-been can do what he is designed for and pick up the pieces, this new breed of men should stand proud, insists Peter York.
"Acknowledge your Hus-been-ness -- revel in it, even -- and people will think you're modern. Some of them might even remember your name," he says.