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New word alert: Mansplaining

To mansplain is for a man to tell a woman something she already knows, with a condescending undercurrent of sexism. It’s based on the verb to explain and is conjugated the same way.

As far as I can tell, the word has been used occasionally since 2009, mostly on feminist blogs. Let’s look at where mansplaining came from, and how the definition might be evolving.

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The first real definition of mansplaining I can find is on Karen Healey’s Livejournal, dated May 8, 2009:

“Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate ‘facts’ about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.”

Healey takes no credit for coining the word. She cites an April 2008 essay by writer Rebecca Solnit, who described the idea without using the word itself. I can’t find any place online where Solnit has used the word or taken credit for coining it.

In January 2010, Suzanne E. Franks shaped the word a little bit more in a blog post called “You May Be A Mansplainer If…,” which was interpreted by her commenters as dealing with a style of debate—mainsplainers who want to spar and provoke.

Responding to that post, blogger Kate Harding added:

“Here’s a thing about mansplaining and why I care a lot about it: it is annoying, and frustrating, and insulting, and deeply rooted in institutionalized sexism, and often profoundly harmful to women…. The biggest mansplainer I’ve known made me doubt my sanity for years; I am still recovering. This isn’t just a supremely sexist and problematic internet habit. It can be a psychologically violent act.”

There’s more context in a February 3, 2010 post on the feminist blog Fannie’s Room:

“The mansplainer’s problem isn’t so much that he’s trying to teach a woman something, but rather that he takes it as a given that she doesn’t already know whatever it is he is going to tell her…. Despite my general competence at life, dudes mansplain things to me all the time. When I’ve been in gyms working out, men have offered me unsolicited tips on new exercises to try, despite the fact that I’ve been successfully working out and lifting weights for almost two decades. A non-lawyer dude that I work with has several times given me a general overview of laws that I deal with on a daily basis.”

There has been backlash to the word, summed up in this alternate definition posted May 12, 2010 on Urban Dictionary:

“Mansplain: A meaningless term used by small-time radical feminists on Internet blogs. Essentially utilized as a way to shut down any male- or person they perceive as male- who dares to express an opinion that differs even slightly from their own warped version of reality. Even the fymynysts are unsure of exactly what it’s supposed to mean- only that it has the word ‘man’ in it and therefore must be bad and evil.”

In Google searches, I found almost no debate over what mansplain means. Here are some recent mansplaining sightings in the wild, all of which agree with the standard definition:

  • Time.com, September 30, 2010: “Mansplaining: Stressed Men Feel Your Pain Less, But Women Feel It More.”
  • Jason Linkins on The Huffington Post, February 1, 2011: “What’s getting all of the attention in the bill is the part where legislators have banded together to mansplain the various shadings of the crime of ‘rape’ to America.”
  • Jezebel, March 28, 2011: “His latest column — on why all women are essentially prostitutes — inspired us to take a look back at his mansplaining oeuvre.”
  • Nutritionista, March 31, 2011: “So why do men feel like they have the right to interrupt her workout to offer unsolicited advice? … There is a phenomenon my girlfriends and I refer to as ‘mansplaining,’ which refers to any time a man feels he needs to over-explain an issue to a woman who generally already knows what he’s talking about.”

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After 2 years of usage online, this word hasn’t really broken out into mainstream writing. The feminist definition may come on too strong for most writers. It feels like a loaded grenade, a word you deploy only when you’re prepared to cause damage.

Recently I’ve been hearing friends use the word in conversation to mean something slightly different. It’s used to describe well-meaning but doltish men who fill dead air with whatever boring facts come to mind. Think about guys who ramble about cars, sports, bills, and other stereotypically male topics—doing so not because they’re sexist, but because they’re clumsy at conversation.

I like this definition. It describes a common, funny concept and we need a word for it. (There’s also variation sometimes used in the context of fathers: dadsplaining. But never womansplaining, which would be a confusing word because it’s out-of-sync with the cultural norm we’re trying to mock.)

So the question I propose is this: Can the word mansplaining work if it’s separated from the idea of hostile sexism? Do we risk minimizing the problem this word was created to explain?

What do you think of mansplain? Would you (a) use it in a funny conversation, (b) save it for when you need an extra-strong word, or (c) never use it at all?

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, Words

5 comments

  1. Rebecca solnit says:

    The reference is to my essay on Tomdispatch in the spring of 2008 titled, “Men Explain Things to Me.”

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174918

    thanks for the neologism.

    Rebecca

  2. Rebecca solnit says:

    oh, but I meant to say I never used the actual word.

  3. Daryl Lang says:

    Thanks Rebecca!

  4. Zuska says:

    “Can the word mansplaining work if it’s separated from the idea of hostile sexism? Do we risk minimizing the problem this word was created to explain?”

    It doesn’t make sense to me to use mansplaining to describe doltish men who are clumsy at conversation, unless they are nattering on at length about whatever it is they think they are experts about in order to ‘splain to some women what they are sure she doesn’t understand. Because that’s what the word is supposed to be about. The word is supposed to identify and accurately describe a type of ubiquitous, hurtful, annoying sexist behavior, so yes, repurposing the word in a way that separates the meaning from the aggressive hostile sexist behavior it is meant to describe does indeed minimize, even obscure, that very behavior. Call the doltish men doltish. Leave mansplaining for its intended use.

  5. N. Lesarb says:

    Thanks for this post. I agree with “Zuska,” that the word doesn’t really work to describe doltishness, but I also think it encourages sloppy categorical thinking and labeling. Guys do this to other guys all the time, for one thing — observe any all-guy business meeting, or a lot of sports activities, where really, more than anything, it’s hierarchy that dictates who gets to do the ‘splaining. Seems to me a lot of people charging men with “mansplaining” (which I think is real) are really avoiding their own passive communication and some predictable results of it. Nothing stops a person from interrupting or interjecting that they know something already if someone’s rambling on. I’ve also personally been “mansplained” to by women. For this and other reasons I don’t have space for here, it seems like a sloppy term at best, and an excuse at worst.

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