This past December, when The New York Times covered a Metropolitan Transit Authority plan to combat the scourge of men taking up multiple subway seats with their spread-eagled legs—or “manspreading”—some people reacted as strongly to the word as to the news itself. As a commenter called Joe wrote on the Times website, “The coining of the term seems sexist to me, against men. I’ve seen women spreading out, as well—not just with shopping bags, but also by spreading their hips and legs. Why not just call it spreading?”
“Manspreading” joins a host of other mocking “man” terms coined over the last decade or so to describe specifically male actions and objects: man cave, man boobs (or moobs), man-hug, man date, manscaping (male personal grooming), mandal (a man’s sandal). 2012 was the year when “mansplaining” went big: That’s the male act of expecting a woman to listen patiently to the explanation of something she probably already knows.
It’s true, as Joe says, that these words are aimed at men, sometimes with gentle humor and sometimes more pointedly. However, their linguistic weaponry—what’s known in the field as “gender marking”—merely rights a balance that has been tipped massively in favor of men for centuries. The very reason these words are so unexpected and satisfying (for women, at least) is that they do to male words what English has done to female words for as long as people have been speaking the language.
Marking, as a linguistic term, describes the alteration of a word to distinguish a new meaning. An unmarked word is its simplest, most “neutral” form—for instance, the present tense of a verb, or the singular form of a noun.
In English, historically, many unmarked words have been designated male, with an addition tacked on to make them female: “poet” vs. “poetess,” “master” vs. “mistress,” and so on. You might assume the same of “man” vs. “woman,” but there a more particular accident of linguistic history is at work. In Old English, as in many of the Germanic languages, “man” generically meant “person” in addition to its current “male person” meaning. The OED, for instance, quotes a 15th-century sermon in which a married couple is described as “riht riche men.” Meanwhile, “wif” and “were,” as well as the compounds “wifman” (woman-person) and “waepman” (weapon-person) or, possibly, “wereman” (man-person), were equivalent to “woman” and “man,” or wife and husband. After the Middle Ages, however, the generic meaning for “man” largely dropped out. “Man” absorbed the space vacated by “were” and “waepman,” while “wifman” evolved into “woman.”
Whatever cultural and linguistic forces shaped this shift, it set up a fundamental inequality. “‘Man’ and ‘wife’ presumably used to be more parallel when you had ‘were’ and ‘wif,’” said Dennis Baron, linguistics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Now ‘wife’ seems like the appendage.” Gender-marking in occupational terms—suffixes like -ess or the mostly obsolete Old English -ster or -xter, as in “spinster” or “baxter,” a female baker—shows up in the Middle Ages with “abbess,” “countess,” and “prioress.” Middle English also introduced now obsolete gender-marked terms like “leaperess,” “singeress,” “slayeress,” and “jangleress” (female jangler or jester), suggesting that women were viewed as having distinct methods of conducting all these activities. The French suffix -ette entered English in the 18th century and gave us a plethora of cute words including “parsonette,” “sailorette,” “farmerette,” as well as the -ette to end all other -ettes, “suffragette”—a girly campaigner for the vote.
In the rarer cases when occupations were specifically described as male, it tended to be in female-dominated fields, where a man’s participation might have been thought suspect or surprising: “male teacher,” “male model,” “male nurse” (as contrasted with “lady doctor”). These phrases were inherently pejorative, similar to epithets from Shakespeare’s day: “male bawd,” “male coquette,” or “male virgin.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, there’s “man milliner,” a word describing both a man who makes hats, and according to the OED, an “effeminate man”: “He’s an empty-pated fellow, and as conceited as a man-milliner,” wrote the British author Theodore Hook in 1839. But in general, the male words tended to be the unmarked ones.
Over the past 60 years, sex-specific terms have come to seem old-fashioned and sexist. You don’t see “policewoman” or “authoress” much anymore; if someone refers to a “lady doctor,” he’s probably over 80. During that same period, however, a new crop of “man” words entered the lexicon. “Manchild” meant merely a “male child” until the 1960s. But around that time, its meaning expanded to encompass men who just act like children. “Man bag” dates back to at least 1968; its modern descendent, “man purse,” or the dreaded “murse,” made it into The New York Times by 1998, when a Style article argued that “in this era of 70’s-influenced, unisex clothing, the time is right for a reappraisal.”
Much of this terminology arrives at a time when straight men in the English-speaking world are coming to define manliness in broader ways. After the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” days of the mid-00s, when many of the “man” words appeared, it became far more permissible to sport mandals, to have a bromance or a man-hug, or even to manscape, and yet some cultural anxiety continues to surround these activities. Hence the comically self-conscious new words. “One of the things that’s funny about these words is that they’re marking maleness,” said Anne Curzan, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Michigan.
And yet, she argued, there’s something a little different about “mansplain” and “manspread.” As Joe notes, there’s nothing inherently gendered about explaining or taking up too much space on the subway. To scornfully mark these human actions as characteristic of one gender bespeaks some anger.
That said, the anger stems from a desire to address an imbalance, linguistic and otherwise. The words mansplaining and manspreading represent, Baron said, “a pushback against male dominance of conversations and subway seats.” As any farmerette or authoress could tell you, language can be a way to enforce inequalities. But it can also be a useful way to oppose them.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.