Mansplaining the word of the year – and why it matters

We could all pay better attention to what comes out our mouth. Emmanuel Szép

The Macquarie Dictionary last week named “mansplain” its word of the year for 2014. The Dictionary defines mansplain as:

verb (t) Colloquial (humorous) (of a man) to explain (something) to a woman, in a way that is patronising because it assumes that a woman will be ignorant of the subject matter. MAN + (EX)PLAIN with s inserted to create a pronunciation link with explain.

Since its coinage in 2008, mansplain has varyingly been flagged as sexist or a powerful means for calling out something men do, especially on the internet. Is it sexist or a powerful tool in the anti-sexism arsenal?

Society-at-large ultimately determines this. But here are some things to consider.

Wo'man’ and language change

Linguistic change suggests that the English language or rather its speakers haven’t always been kind or equitable to women.

English language scholar Geoffrey Hughes notes that there is a “jocular grammatical precept that ‘man embraces woman’”. This is evidenced in English by words such as “lion” and “tiger” vis-à-vis “lioness” and “tigress”. In both cases, the male word is morphologically less complex and may be used to refer to the species in general, male and female alike.

The word “man” reflects this pattern. It has two meanings, the first of which refers to an “adult male” and the second “humanity” more generally. The latter meaning meant that at one time man relied on context or compounding to determine the referent’s sex or reference to humanity.

The Old English compound wīf-mann was used to clarify that a reference was a woman, and wer-mann that the referent was a man. Man arguably won out here with wer dropping out of use save its subtle appearance in words such as werewolf.

Wīf narrowed in meaning from “woman” to the modern “wife”, and wīf-mann became phonetically simplified to the modern “woman”.

Women’s efforts to battle implicitly and explicitly sexist processes of this sort have yielded results from the latter part of the 20th century.

Linguist David Crystal points out that opposition to “man” as a reference to all humans, and to the pronoun “he” and its inflected forms for both men and women led to a dramatic reduction in the use of these forms. Specifically, a survey of these forms in 1970s magazines showed their use fell from 12.3 per 5,000 words in 1971 to 4.3 in 1979.

The tide has clearly turned against some sexist words and usages. But one needn’t look long and hard to find that this issue hasn’t entirely been redressed.

Whores, chair-things and the subtle world of sexism

Racist and sexist attitudes persist in our implicit or explicit language choices, even where they seem to be have been addressed on the surface in society.

For instance, last year, a female scientist blogging for Scientific American was called a “whore” by a male editor at another blog. This was in response to the scientist’s polite refusal to contribute free work to this blog.

This might have been acceptable if the editor was using an earlier meaning of whore, a term of endearment for either sex, related to the Latin cārus (“dear”) and the Sanskrit kamah (“desire”) – as in Kama Sutra. Words that refer to women are particularly prone to deterioration in meaning (see also, among others, “slut”, which once merely meant “dirty, slovenly” or referred to a “kitchen maid”).

The blog editor’s use of whore’s 21st-century meaning with a scientist blogging for Scientific American is merely one of many examples of some lingering issues.

Women’s attempts to redress these issues have sometimes been met with ridicule. Tony Abbott, while at university, notably called a female colleague “chair-thing” rather than “chair-person” as she had requested. There has been considerable serious and not-so-serious discussions of what to call a “manhole” in the last few decades (e.g. “person hole”, “sewer cover”).

On top of playing semantics, differing conversational styles suggest men’s voices could end up being heard the loudest. Men are more likely than women to compete for control of a conversation, interrupt, to dispute what’s been said or to respond poorly.

Libfix de résistance

With all of this in mind, women have often taken creative, aggressive and, to some, seemingly extreme stances to redress power imbalances and perceived weaknesses in language.

Writer/ linguist Anthony Burgess notes that scathing feminists and feminist dictionaries have defined the first “males” as “mutants [and] freaks produced by some damage to the genes”.

Science Fiction novelist Suzanne Haden Elgin created the language Làadan for her 1982 novel Native Tongue. Làadan had a wider vocabulary to encapsulate the female experience, including a series of words to express whether one’s period (oshàana) was weshàana (late), hushàana (painful) or àashàana (joyful), among other things.

As for mansplain, we might view this as one more tactic for combatting perceived or actual male behaviour. It sits alongside attempts to own or redefine the word slut and a recent Super Bowl commercial that asks men, women, boys and girls to deconstruct the insult “throws like a girl”.

It is clearly a useful word for flagging something happening in society. Mansplain has already spawned a popular libfix (a blend of liberated and affix): – “splain”. We already see its use expanding to include “whitesplaining”, “rightsplaining” and even, in the 2012 US elections, “Mittsplaining” (for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney).

To these ends, it is certainly a word for the times.