A Deep Dive into Mansplaining

Since shortly after Rebecca Solnit penned Men Explain Things to Me in 2008, people have been using a new coinage to describe a phenomenon English lacked (and desperately needed) a word for: to mansplain.  Here, I discuss everything you ever wanted to know about mansplaining  but didn't know to ask, hopefully while avoiding mansplaining myself.

[CONTENT WARNING: I will be using potentially offensive language below, including brief discussion of pimps, violence, and novel sex acts.]


What is mansplaining?

For those who are unfamiliar with it (all 12 of you), the difference between mansplaining and explaining is primarily that in mansplaining the person doing the -splaining (1) assumes that they know more about the subject than their interlocutor, and (2) is probably wrong, both about knowing more, and about the subject in general.  In both instances, someone is explaining something to someone else, so mansplain seems to be a strict subset of all possible instances of explaining, just one in which the explainer is wrong, and pompous.

It may also seem obvious who is doing the mainsplaining, but interestingly, people disagree about this. I was initially super excited about the word because it looked like something that's not technically supposed to happen: so-called "agent incorporation" (where the actor/agent/person-doing-a-thing gets sucked literally into the verb). However, different people have very different intuitions about whether a mansplainer (one who mansplains) necessarily must be a man. Or Male. Or cis-het male. 

Some people argue strongly that the only people who mansplain are cis-gender, heterosexual men. Others argue anyone can mansplain, since it's a way of (wrongly) explaining that's just associated with men because we do it so. damn. often. 

So mansplaining then, is:

  1. explaining
  2. that is wrong
  3. (possibly) done to someone who knows better
  4. likely done by a man (but not necessarily, depending on who is telling you about the act of mansplaining)
  5. likely done to a woman (but not necessarily)
  6. (probably) done in a pompous, self-aggrandizing way

Predictably, a number of people have railed against the term, mostly other cis-het white men (the "not all men!" rallying cry of some corners of the internet). Also predictably, the term has broadened its use, so it's entirely possible to  dismiss a man who isn't wrong by alleging he's mansplaining (insinuating he's both wrong and probably totally misogynist). 

 Mansplain is a new Germanic equivalent of the Latinate word pontificate which means "express one's opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic" and which originates from the word pontiff -- historically, mansplainers par-excellence. Just as you can annoyingly pontificate without actually being a pontiff, or even catholic, some argue you can mansplain without being a man. We're just the primary at-risk population for succumbing to bouts of mansplaining.


How can you mansplain without being a man?

The same way you can pimp slap without being a pimp. No joke, this is how it was explained to me by a faculty member at U Penn. We can think of some of these words as incorporating either the object (meaning: the thing acted upon by an action), or the manner (meaning: how something was done). So pimp slap is to slap in the manner that a pimp would. Conversely, bitch slap is an instance of object incorporation -- it's not slapping in the manner of a bitch (is there a word for that?), but rather, how a bitch gets slapped. 

I was initially intrigued academically because I thought mansplain might be an instance where the person doing the thing gets incorporated into the verb, which would have very interesting theoretical ramifications in linguistics, but it's not clear now that this is what's actually happening. For many people, mansplaining is clearly manner incorporation: "she mansplained me my own research."

What's up with the syntax?

I'm not entirely sure. Mansplaining frequently occurs in a construction historically called the "ethical dative" which is a fancy name for the construction [verb] [indirect object] [object], as in "give me that." (fun fact: dative comes from the Latin word meaning 'give').  Often, you see constructions like: "he mansplained me my own research." Or even, "stop mansplaining me." I have no idea why this should be, but it definitely stands out as a common way of using the term. Maybe it's related to other ongoing changes in English.

[Note: it was pointed out to me in the comments that the ethical dative has a more technical interpretation -- fixed reference to the speaker -- however I have had a number of interactions where the name is used for the construction I described above, as a shorthand. Technically, there are also presentative datives and personal datives. A good read on these last two is the article on Southern American constructions like "There's you a good place to eat."]

Don't we men do all sorts of things, though?

We do, and now there's words for more of them! A sample:

  • manslamming: when a man doesn't move  for you on the sidewalk (this one seems to be intended to describe only men, and not manner).
  • manspreading: when someone spreads their legs in a public space, like uncouth men. It's well-enough known that the MTA in New York actually has (extremely ineffective) warnings against it.
  • manterrupting: to interrupt or talk over someone, in the manner of a man. For what it's worth, I'm not entirely clear on how manterrupting could be different from interrupting just done by a man, but perhaps someone will explain in the comments.
  • manscaping: trimming and shaping the hair around male genitals. By analogy with the verb landscape. This one is much older.


What about other people, don't they do things?

They do! We've moved from #notallmen to #notjustmen. Other words on the same model I've come across include:

  • womengineer: (1) to do engineering while being a woman, (2) to socially manipulate, in the manner of a woman.
  • dogsplain: to explain. If you're a dog.
  • GOPsplain: to mansplain while republican.
  • Demsplain: to mansplain while a democrat.
  • femsplain: (1) to explain feminism! (2) to womansplain, possibly womansplaining feminism.
  • whitesplain: same as mansplaining, but (1) you don't have to be a man, (2) the explainer is white, and possibly (3) you're talking about race.
  • whitefuck: to ruin, in the manner that white people often do.
  • baracksplain: to explain, wrong, while being Barack Obama, or in the manner of Barack Obama.
  • trumpsplain: to incorrectly explain, while being Donald Trump, or in the manner of Donald Trump.
  • Bernisplain: you get the idea.
  • Bitchsplain: mansplaining while female -- although it seems the case that people who use bitchsplain likely don't think mansplaining is 'a thing'.
  • dicksplain: mansplaining, like not just a man, but a total dick.
  • bropropriate: to culturally appropriate like a "bro" -- what older generations would call a "frat boy."
  • boomersplain: to explain, wrong,while being a baby-boomer, or like a baby-boomer. 
  • fagasm: to orgasm (possibly figuratively) over something spectacularly, marvelously gay. Google at your own risk.

And my personal favorite:

  • goysplain: when a non-Jewish person (singular: goy, plural: goyim) attempts to explain Judaism or Jewish tradition to Jews, as in: "I can't believe that goy tried to goysplain passover to me. What a schmuck."


Some of those look like agent incorporation. Is that a thing?

Conceptually, that may be the best way to explain why Barack Obama is the only person who ever seems to be accused of baracksplaining, and why white people are who get accused of whitesplaining, however, there are a few ways in which such an analysis would be extremely contentious.

First, given what we know about syntax now, it's a much more contentious statement than it seems, because it would have to be structurallyquite complex, and extremely unusual given the kind of structures we expect in contemporary syntactic theory. That is, treating it as agent incorporation doesn't really fit with current models.

Second, as soon as someone uses a word like whitesplain to describe white people mis-explaining race, someone else will use it to describe the things that fall out of Raven Symoné's mouth. It seems like the agent/manner line is blurry to the extent it exists at all, manner is more useful to more people in more instances, and if one were to coin something and intend it as agent incorporation it would almost immediately be interpreted and used as manner incorporation.

Wait, aren't you mansplaining right now?

I hope not! I've given this a fair amount of thought, I'm a qualified expert, and I'm not silencing others who are more knowledgeable on the subject. I welcome further discussion, and I'm pretty sure not welcoming discussion is one of the hallmarks of classic mansplaining.

Is this new word good or bad?

Neither. I think it fills a need. Let's face it: we men often dominate conversations, and sometimes pontificate about things we're not terribly qualified to discuss. The most socially inept among us will do this to women who are more knowledgeable about the subject at hand. We've all seen this.  As a guy, I completely understand the feeling when you hear accusations of mansplaining ("hey, I'm a man! What are you accusing me of? Not all men, lady!"), but ultimately, I can't argue with the fact that it's a thing that happens in our society, and mansplain gives us a quick, easy, clear way of discussing it. And yeah, men, you might be wrongly accused of mansplaining every now and then.  Sometimes, too, you might actually be doing it.

Is it just verbs that get gendered like this?

In anglophone society, male is often taken to be default. However, there are certain things that are traditionally associated with women, that men have started doing, either to intentionally dismantle the patriarchy, or for some other reason, like wanting to look like a samurai. Examples of gendered nouns of a similar form include:

  • man bun
  • man purse
  • bromance
  • mantertainment

Can you just shmush any two words together?

Yes and no. Constantine Lignos and Hilary Pritchard have done extensive work on blends, and argue that some (bromance, cronut, sexpert) are much better than others (brinkles, wegotism). Their research on the subject explicitly discusses manspreading and sharknado, and I highly recommend reading it, since it's fascinating -- it can be found here

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about mansplaining, but didn't know to ask. 


©Taylor Jones 2016

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