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The neologism “mansplain” offends me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. It’s one of those neologisms whose sense I don’t have a problem with. A pithy term for “male-chauvinistically patronising explanations”, given the prevalence of such in various discussions, seems a useful thing to have around. (It would be rather ironic if I stood up on a soapbox and told women everywhere that this “mansplaining” thing they complain about doesn’t exist, wouldn’t it?)

However, constructing the portmanteau simply by tacking “man” onto “explain” seems…well, rather offensive. “Explain” is if anyting morally positive; “mansplain” is highly negative; ergo the modifier that turns it all negative seems to be “man”. That is, a gender role is used as a negative. That seems prima facie wrong. Alienating and wrong, which I find an unfortunate feature in language.¹

Note that well: I’m not saying that the phenomenon referred to as “mansplaining” does not exist; I am not denying that it is associated with and usefully labelled as associated with a set of people arguing from a position of male privelege (i.e. a set of men). But by slapping the label “man” on there, it makes me feel, whenever I see the word, as though its author is referring derogatorily to any explanation made by a man, any man.

We wouldn’t have this problem if the neologism were instead “malechauvinisplain”, but I will concede that this is not nearly as pithy. I suppose you could abbreviate it as “[to] male-chauvinistically, patronisingly explain” ⇒ “macsplain”, but that sounds like a poor justification for franchised fast food rather than a comment on gender debate.

Of course, you might well argue that yes, it’s offensive, but that’s okay, because &c. &c., and I won’t say that’s wrong; but that would be in agreement with the post above, and is not a conversation that I care to have right now.

Parenthetically, I am of course often offended by neologisms simply because I’m in many respects a linguistic conservative; unless a term is a technical term referring to a new technology or similar, I tend to cringe slightly at many a word until it’s relaxed in the OED for a few decades. “Guesstimate”, “automagic”, and what not still make me cringe a little. —As do the attempts at gender-neutral pronouns like “zhe” or “hir”², even though I think that English really does need such pronouns.

¹ Most feminists do not hate men, but there are a few loudmouths who equate maleness with evil. If I wanted to describe the behaviour of those very few women who discount any argument made by men on the basis of their sex, in the favour of any argument made by a woman, as “womansplaining”, I think I would draw a lot of well-earned ire. The proportions are very different, since “mansplaining” is very common and since the balance of power is what it is, but the formation is otherwise completely isomorphic. And, I would argue, isomorphically offensive. We could also shudder at such awful, hypothetical neologistic abortions as “gaysplain”. (Or even worse, “homosplain” or “fagsplain”, but those would come pre-loaded with already-derogatory terms.)

On a personal note, I really do find such alienating language extremely off-putting. Reading many major feminist blogs, for instance, does not so much fill me with passion and ardour to better myself as make me feel the target of a generic and faceless pressure of guilt and accusation of crimes I did not personally commit, on the basis of my gender (as though I were to blame for the history and culture that place me in a position of privilege), and phrases like “mansplain” play no small part. Other bloggers, like Greta Christina, frame it in a different way, “humans for women”, again in no small part due to choice of language. I’m not arguing that it’s anyone’s place or duty to court me as an ally; what I decry is not lack of actively inviting language, but presence of actively alienating such.

² “Hir” also has the problem that its spelling suggests it be pronounced identically to “her”, which invites confusion with precisely one of the words it was specifically designed to avoid.

Date: 2010-11-04 10:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] renatus.livejournal.com
I'm sorry this is kind of a driveby; I don't have a lot of time atm but the guilt thing I keep seeing from people (it's all over the place, man) is starting to really get to me.

If it isn't about you, don't make it about you. Very, very few people are interested in you feeling guilty for shit you aren't doing, because there isn't any point in it. Really. When people talk about the bad shit men do, if you aren't doing that shit, awesome! Then it isn't about you. You don't need to explain that HAY GUISE THIS ISN'T ABOUT ME -- if it isn't, we already know it, so you don't need to make it about you to tell us that. Okay? Okay!

Date: 2010-11-04 11:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com

If it isn't about you, don't make it about you.

But that’s precisely the point, in a post that is about the creation of a word: By creating a word that addresses men without qualification, it addresses me by implication, because I am one. If it isn’t about all men, don’t refer to all men. If the word had been chosen to be more specific—cf. my joking “malechauvinisplain” or “macsplain” suggestions above—it wouldn’t be addressing me (unless I were doing something wrong at the time).

Date: 2010-11-04 11:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] renatus.livejournal.com
Nnno. You're trying to apply scientific rigor to language, which doesn't work because language is inherently flexible and bendy to deal with flexible and bendy concepts, and you're rubbing elbows with relativist fallacy in the process.

You're doing the equivalent of responding to someone who says 'Dogs do X' (where X is a trait shared by the majority of dogs) with 'Well MY dog doesn't do X so obviously that's inaccurate and you need to qualify that SOME dogs don't do X,' even though anyone with a reasonable grasp of the bendiness of language is going to have the mental room to reason that it may be that some dogs don't do X, but enough do that's it's helpful shorthand to generalize rather than having to cover each and ever single exemption and edge case every time it comes up.

Again, if it isn't about you, don't make it about you.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sheepykins.livejournal.com
You're doing the equivalent of responding to someone who says 'Dogs do X' (where X is a trait shared by the majority of dogs) with 'Well MY dog doesn't do X so obviously that's inaccurate and you need to qualify that SOME dogs don't do X,'

If you're responding to the post and not the footnote, that's not what he's doing at all. He's saying "this is sexist language, I wish there were an alternative."

And in that, he isn't wrong. It is inherently sexist language, in exactly the same way "gaysplaining," were it a real term, would be homophobic language or "blacksplaining" would be racist.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] renatus.livejournal.com
Men aren't marginalized while queers and blacks are, so it's not very much the same at all.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sheepykins.livejournal.com
I disagree; using a demographic term to connote something is using a demographic term to connote something. "Reverse" sexism is still sexism. To take it to the extreme, lynching someone for being white is still a hate crime.

That's not to say that women are not and have not been oppressed, nor that we don't still suffer an awful lot of shit from a society spawned from a a straight white patriarchy. We do and it's impossible to discuss that without implicating men. But I don't think we need to resort to inherently sexist terminology.

Date: 2012-10-22 07:16 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Queers and Blacks are often, about 50% of the time, men.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com

You're doing the equivalent of responding to someone who says 'Dogs do X' (where X is a trait shared by the majority of dogs) with 'Well MY dog doesn't do X so obviously that's inaccurate and you need to qualify that SOME dogs don't do X,'…

You're doing the equivalent of responding to someone who says 'Men do X' (where X is a trait shared by the majority of men) with 'Well I don't do X so obviously that's inaccurate and you need to qualify that SOME men don't do X,'…

The analogy you make implies that “mansplaining”, e.g. male-chauvinistic patronising of women, is a trait shared by the majority of men, where the exceptions to the rule are the minority and hence remarkable. After all, the whole point of a generalisation (as I think we’ll agree?) is to document the ‘default’ assumption (dogs like rolling in the grass, men are taller than women) to simplify communication, reasoning that the comparatively-rare exceptions can be dealt with individually. That’s precisely the problem I have with the word in the first place. I don’t find that convenient shorthand; I find it offensive shorthand, because it does place me in the camp where a presumption of guilt is the default, and where I am placed on the defensive.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] renatus.livejournal.com
No, it doesn't place you in the camp where the presumption of guilt is the default. Have you even looked at how it's actually used? As a VERB, to describe something someone DOES?

You're making it about you.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com
If it was not intended to convey a default, then I confess that I don’t understand what point you were trying to make with your analogy…? My restatement is completely isomorphic with yours, and it seems to very strongly imply a default presumption.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com
And of course it’s about me; it’s my blog where I talk about what I think about things (with occasional exceptions like computer security PSAs and sharing of humorous links, quotes, and anecdotes—but it’s a fair generalisation that this blog is about what I think). Generally speaking, I think it’s unwise to read personal blogs if you dislike self-indulgence. I’ve never seen one without it, and while they may exist, I won’t pretend to maintain one.

Date: 2010-11-04 11:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] renatus.livejournal.com
And what does that all have to do about your perception people are 'making' you feel GUILT, which is what I was addressing?

Date: 2010-11-04 11:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com
If that’s what you were addressing, I misunderstood—I assumed that your initial comment was with regard to the main article, rather than my footnote. The main article, as Sheepy said above, is about the word itself.

As for what the relation is between that and the footnote about a feeling of imposition of guilt, the relation is tangential. It’s pretty much what the footnote says: The prevalence of language that reads like accusations (cf. the post title) makes me feel alienated. Yes, intellectually I recognise e.g. that “mansplaining” is not intended to refer to every explanation uttered by a man, but the word looks like it, so every time I see it, that interpretation leaps into my face. If I read an article where, every paragraph, an apparent accusation and insult leaps out at me and I have to consciously remind myself that the author uses the word in a particular, well-defined but less intuitive fashion, then I will have a very uncomfortable reading experience. If an author uses Men do X as shorthand for male chauvinists do X, then I will feel accused.

Date: 2011-01-31 02:00 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Very good post..

Date: 2011-02-14 03:16 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This was a nice article to read, thank you for sharing it.

Date: 2011-07-06 05:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petter-haggholm.livejournal.com

Only now, much later, do I realise the proper facetious response, viz.

womansplain vb. tr. (-ed, -ing):

To automatically dismiss as “mansplaining” anything said in gender discussion by a man, when said dismissal is based on the fact that it was said by a man rather than because it was fallacious. (It is, we should note and emphasise, a far rarer occurrence than genuine mansplaining.)

Sample usage:
“…Ergo X.”
“Thank you for mansplaining that to me.”
“Manspl…what was the error in what I said?”
“If you can’t check your privilege, you just won’t understand.”
“Ah, I see. Thank you for womansplaining my privilege.”

I don’t condone the use of this term of mine, but offer it as a hideous symmetry.

Date: 2011-07-24 05:02 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thank you for this post. I just learned of this word, and find it appalling. I consider myself a feminist, and I do think there can be such a thing as reverse sexism, and it hurts us all. I do think that you often have certain types (both men and women) crying 'reverse sexism' or 'racism against whites' in a reactionary, inappropriate way and in these cases, the argument that sexism/racism doesn't apply because they are not a marginalised group is valid. But there are times reverse sexism does occur and a word like 'mansplaining', coined from generalisation and stereotyping, is one of them.

I don't understand how other feminists can use a word like this and claim any men taking it personally are being oversensitive, that taking the 'man' part literally is wrong, whilst simultaneously believing similar words directed at women are offensive to women, or that the 'man' part of words like chairman, etc IS significant in what it connotes about gender, and is inherently exclusionary to women. It is the height of hypocrisy.

My main problem with this word is, I don't see why we need to contract a concept like "male chauvinistically patronising explanations". I think for precision of communication it's better to spend those few extra words, or similar, than contract it to something connoting gender stereotyping. As it stands, it is potentially a dangerous, ugly weapon that demonises both men, and explaining. The latter offends me almost as much as the former. Browsing the internet for usage, I see how many examples of intelligent debate, respectful disagreement, or committing the sometimes annoying, but relatively banal and very human sins of being a know-it-all or long-winded are labeled as 'mansplaining'.

The first instance I came across of the word cemented for me its worst potential. A blog entry was attacking a male commenter for 'mansplaining'. I went with the concept at first (though I found the word linguistically clunky and potentially problematic beyond that), thinking it would be aimed at a garden-variety misogynist telling feminists to 'get over it' - something I certainly find unacceptable. When I read the comment, I was shocked the commenter had been characterised this way. The comment was simply someone making a counter-argument to an argument he disagreed with, in a respectful, reasoned way. It was no different in tone than any discussion I have seen on blogs with healthy debate, and certainly on the more intelligent, open, polite scale of such comments.

The replies he got were chiding, immature, cruel and tone-deaf. The disproportionate hatred leveled at this person and the dismissal of any of his thoughts as 'mansplaining' was awful.

The word has the danger of being thought-terminating for the person using it, and silencing to the person it is applied to. I am seeing this in practice, so I cannot buy the argument that it is some sort of personalisation that makes one disapprove of this word. It is doing what the word sounds like - demonising men, and explaining. The latter offends me almost as much as the former. Like you say, explaining is inherently a positive thing. This word, and many instances of its usage I've witnessed, ends up reeking of anti-intellectualism.

Other than that, in terms of a portmanteau, I find it clunky, juvenile and imprecise. I am against this word for these reasons as well as its implications and faulty premise, and I am against not allowing room for feminists - or anyone - to dislike it or argue against it. There is nothing wrong with you arguing that language should be precise - it is a view I share. I resent that being classified as some sort of rigid, over-rationalising take on language. This seems another way to silence differing opinions, rather than engage with them.

Date: 2013-03-28 05:13 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This comment made my day. Hard to explain the feelings of wanting and failing to find intellectually honest feminist commentary that accounts for the humanity of intellectually skeptical dudes that are nonetheless humans for women, hoo-rah. I want to learn much more about gender inequality without feeling attacked. I actively want to be a part of this movement and find it difficult to get past the chiding and the immaturity that comes out whenever dudes object to actual instances of reverse sexism (and I would love to develop a neologism to distinguish these even-handed internal critiques from Men's Rights-ish aggression, which is far more offensive than any of the stuff those guys hem and haw about). At any rate, it's difficult to account for nuance when you're trying to change the world. So I'm patient with feminism, as it grows and builds in strength, depth, and dexterity. In the meantime, this comment fuels my hope of a more inclusive, big-tent movement that can supplant the status quo. (please pardon if my words are more clumsy and concepts less precise than they should be - we are all learning to account for our own biases, and I'm no exception).


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Petter Häggholm

December 2013

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