Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

"Mansplaining" Spawns a New Suffix

Mansplaining — a fella explaining something, unnecessarily and often incorrectly, with oodles of condescension — is as old as the hills. The word itself has been around since about 2009, but it's blossomed since, providing a potent weapon in women's arsenal against overbearing dudes.

In fact, mansplain has been so successful that it's spawned a suffix (or "libfix," if you prefer). Just as Watergate, fantastic, and spectacular launched the suffixes -gate, -tastic, and -tacular, mansplain is such a useful word that -splain has taken on a life of its own. It's now possible to ladysplain, babysplain, and even singsplain. This is a classic case of how language mutates and a solid indicator that the word mansplain is here to stay — and may prove as sturdy as its referent.

Some uses of the -splain suffix mean about the same as mansplain, like boysplain, brosplain, and jerksplain. Some men are important enough to get their own word, as in this striking coinage: "The future Pope Francis may have acted mainly out of fear. Anyway, he's got some popesplaining to do."  The suffix is put to even broader use in this tweet: "This seems like some 'congressplaining' going on here."

The Ricky Ricardo-style word 'splainin' has come to encompass all of these types of offensive, patronizing blather, such as melaninsplainin' (by white people) and ablesplainin' (by the non-disabled). Along those lines, some people like to cisplain, which is defined on the sometimes useful Urban Dictionary as "To explain, without ever having felt the necessity to investigate the issue, that there are only two genders which are fixed and invariable for every individual at birth." This word is related to cisgender, which refers to people whose outward sexuality and self-perception match: this word is mainly used by transgender people to describe non-transgender people. Cisplaining is particularly obnoxious, since it usually involves someone outside the transgender community explaining "how it is" to someone in the community. This quality of the ignorant talking down to the knowledgeable is a core feature of 'splainin'.

Some use this suffix for a different purpose, flipping and subverting its primary meaning to create female versions of mansplaining that are usually less, well, splainy. In a comment on Nancy Friedman's 2010 piece on mansplaining, womansplaining is used. Carolyn Jewel coined a different word when describing a frustrating conversation with a man: "Then I ladysplained to him that the ON button was completely different, and I simply didn't see it which is NOT the same thing as being unaware of the universal symbol for ON." There is also girlsplain and even bitchsplain, which was humorously self-applied in this Facebook post: "I was asked why Twilight reminded the Read It & Weep podcasters of a romance, and I bitchsplained it for them, old skool romance style." 

Our own Ben Zimmer has been paying attention to -splain too. In American Speech, Zimmer noted that, "The patronizing act of mansplaining has been extended beyond gender divisions to racial and political ones, as in whitesplaining and rightsplaining." Zimmer alerted me to several other uses, such as journosplain, gaysplain, and a coinage of lexicographer Kory Stamper's that was directed at uninformed grammar-correctors: "It's not just that our conversations are stilted because I can't finish a sentence without being grammarsplained to; it's that he makes these judgments based on his own dialectal language patterns."

I have my own Batman addiction to thank for Googling and finding the word Batsplain, which Matt Bors coined after reading a villainess accuse Batman of mansplaining, presumably in the Christian Bale constipated voice. Like Batsplain, many uses of the suffix are jokes, like this gem by Twitter's Uncle Dynamite: "Maybe you should babysplain why this diaper, which was in mint condition not five minutes ago, is now full of cream of mushroom soup." A tweeter with a feline avatar loudly wrote, "YOU'RE NOT UNDERSTANDING, LET ME CATSPLAIN IT TO YOU." While writing this article, I was inspired to try my own joke in this vein, which seems to work lexically, regardless of the humor value: "Got abducted last night. The worst part was the Martiansplaining." As serious uses multiply, jokey uses will probably increase as well, as has happened with the popular formula X-shaming. Child-shaming and body-shaming have paved the way for fedora-shaming and librarian-shaming, just like mansplaining has made it possible to babysplain and catsplain.

A few other uses could broaden this suffix even further. Erin Gloria Ryan takes the word in a new direction with this tweet: "A company that stages viral video friendly flash mobs who singsplain why the unsuspecting star of the video is being served divorce papers." On The Atlantic website, Megan Garber writes, "Today in shoesplaining: Until your career is at its height, ladies, maybe you should stick to flats." These examples are different because they don't attach a word for the splainer to the suffix. Instead, a genre (singing) and a subject (shoes) are used.  If it's possible to singsplain, shoesplain, and grammarsplain, maybe folks will soon rapsplain, poetrysplain, coffeesplain, soccersplain, and cupcakesplain.

Lexically, those are exciting possibilities that follow in the wordsteps of promiscuous suffixes -mentum, -pocalypse, -mageddon, and -nado. Or, depending on your tastes, those are annoying, unnecessary innovations that will drive you to drink. Like it or loathe it, I think 'splainin' might be here to stay.

I just hope I haven't columnsplained too much.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.