Language Corner

‘Mansplaining’ and its offspring

February 18, 2019

People seem to have a whole lot of “splaining” to do about how they are “splaining” things to people who already know better.

“Splain” has become a common suffix—akin to “gate,” and attached to a word to mean: “You are trying to tell me?

The one you may be most familiar with is “mansplain,” which (believe it or not) is in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of a man: to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, esp. (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronizing or chauvinistic attitude.” Merriam-Webster added it in March 2018: “to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”

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Perhaps the ultimate example of “mansplaining” can be found on Twitter: a man tried to explain the difference between a “vulva” and a “vagina,” arguing with a woman who is a gynecologist.

To be fair, the man was defending what he perceived to be the more common term for female genitalia. Also to be fair, he was wrong.

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“Mansplain” traces to 2008 and is often attributed to Rebecca Solnit, who wrote an essay called Men Explain Things to Me, in which she did not use the term “mansplain.” The first usage of the word is believed to have been on LiveJournal; Know Your Meme follows it further, into more common usage.

In 2014, Salon declared the term dead, in a piece saying that “mansplaining has morphed from a useful descriptor of a real problem in contemporary gender dynamics to an increasingly vague catchall expression that seems to be inflaming the Internet gender wars more than clarifying them.”

It’s not dead. It has, however, spawned many offspring, many of them weaponized.

“Klansplaining” may have been coined by The Volatile Mermaid, a Twitter user:

There’s also “whitesplaining,” which an Urban Dictionary definition from 2010 calls “The paternalistic lecture given by Whites toward a person of color defining what should and shouldn’t be considered racist, while obliviously exhibiting their own racism.”

That suffix, “-splain,” is obviously a rendering of the last syllable of “explain.” One meme is that it is itself racist because it makes fun of Spanish accents, most notably that of Desi Arnaz, the Cuban-born TV star and husband of Lucille Ball, known for saying “Lucy, you got some ’splainin’ to do.” (Or not saying it, depending on whom you believe.)

But “-splain” is much older than that.

Dorothy said it The Emerald City of Oz in 1910, and Merriam-Webster traces it to 1821, noting that it’s “usually in phonetic renderings of a person’s accent.” We pronounce the “ex” more like “eks,” and rendering the suffix as “xplain” sounds just like “explain,” so “splain makes more sense. has an entry for “splain” that uses it as a verb, not a suffix to create a gerund (“ing” form) or another verb or as adjective (“mansplainy behavior”).

“Splaining” is certainly here to stay. As M-W notes, “In the past six years, we’ve seen a multitude of –splains, from whitesplain, rightsplain, gaysplain, journosplain, and straightsplain to one-offs like potlucksplain and grammarsplain. And while the -splain train may slow down, it may never stop: the affix -splain will likely continue to spawn more words to describe a know-it-all condescending behavior.”

So even if you use it jocularly, someone might try to “splain” it to you differently.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.