Lexicon Valley

How -Splain Became Our Most Meaningless Suffix

Is this Bernsplanation? 

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“-splain,” tweeted Jonathan Chait earlier this month, responding to a New York Times editorial titled “Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters,” has become an “all-purpose shorthand for ad hominem argument.” Scores of Internet wits proved his point when they replied: “Stop Chaitsplaining!” But Chait is right: This suffix, once so useful, has fallen into a tar pit of sophistry and nonsense. How did this happen, and why? The people demand a splainsplanation.

The saga began in 2008, when Rebecca Solnit published an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Though Solnit didn’t use the word mansplain, she recounted an anecdote in which a man—“with that smug look I know so well … eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”—proceeded to enlighten her as to the contents of her own book. Soon, the term mansplain was kicking around in Livejournal comments and ladyblogs. It meant something like “to declaim, as a male and in a patronizing fashion, on a subject about which you know little, to a woman who knows more.” Jezebel gave mansplaining its own topic tag. Citizen Radio introduced “The Adventures of Mansplainer,” a boldhearted gent with the courage and acuity to set ladies straight on catcalling and workplace sexism. The Tumblr Academic Men Explain Things to Me carved out a safe space for “women [to] recount their experience being mansplained, in academia and elsewhere.” Gleeful meme-ophiles were treated to the suave paternalism and hard-bodied fatuity of “Mansplaining Paul Ryan.”

The portmanteau caught fire because it deftly captured a set of gender dynamics familiar to many women. “There has to be an assumption that you know nothing,” said Emma Roller, a journalist in D.C. Agreed editor Marina Koren, “It always carries the connotation of ‘I don’t want you to do this’ or ‘I am already aware of this.’ ” In classic mansplanation, the man surrenders to the bewitching strains of his own eloquence, delights and revels in his ability to communicate truth, and ignores up to two possible inconvenient realities: that he is wrong, and/or that his female interlocutor is more familiar with the topic at hand than he is. (Extra points if the woman feels impelled to respond politely to the oration. The boor-ration? The ser-man?) He is a vector for low-quality information who thinks he is blowing your mind.

But that usefully precise definition has since turned squishy. As Benjamin Hart pointed out in Salon in 2014 (the same year that mansplain breached Oxford Dictionary’s online database), the term can now describe men talking at men, or men neutrally sharing information with women, or women pompously holding forth as they imagine a conceited guy might. Worse, mansplainers have grown indistinguishable from men saying something a listener does not agree with.

Meanwhile, -splain has ’sploded in its own right. The writer Annabel Crabb coined the term ladysplain to characterize how some women couch their comments in self-deprecation and apology. The site Femsplain appears to want to reclaim -splain. Specific people can -splain—GQ crowned one Republican candidate “The Mittsplainer” in 2012—and so can publications (Voxsplain) and entire industries (techsplain). Bras outfitted with sensors can brasplain your feelings to you. Forbes recruited the feline Mr. Higgs to catsplain the finer points of computer-generated text. 

At its heart, -splain should be about the marriage of two concepts: irony and information asymmetry. In economics, information asymmetry describes transactions “where one party has more or better information than the other”—an imbalance that can lead to market failure. When I Waldsplain to my co-worker, I believe I am correcting an information asymmetry that, in fact, runs in the opposite direction. That’s the irony: My misapprehension of the situation only worsens the skew. Cue conversation failure.

But we no longer just use -splain to highlight ironic information asymmetries in conversation. Chait is right to worry when we use it to rebuke a speaker, say Jonathan Chait, for presuming to speak while being Jonathan Chait. In Aristotelian rhetoric, arguing against a speaker’s character or identity rather than his logical position is known as an appeal to ethos. (Its counterpart is the appeal to logos.) One might even say a mansplaining accusation is the literal definition of an ad hominem attack, in that it attempts to discredit a person’s statements on account of his being a man.

Yet in other contexts, -splain isn’t quite so offensive. Consider the political editorial that inspired Chait’s quip. Writer Charles M. Blow took aim at white progressives who insisted on telling non-white progressives why their support for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders ran counter to their interests. These patronizing white people weren’t whitesplaining, per Blow; they were Bernie-splaining, or holding forth about Bernie. Likewise, beersplaining jokes lampoon the snobbery around obscure craft brews and a petsplaining crack might send up the stringent requirements for goldfish care. You can monksplain monks and hipsplain hips. (You can also explain your ex, but that one doesn’t work so well.) Anecdotally, this seems to be -splain’s new normal: a focusing of hostility not so much on the explainer as on the explanation itself. (And sometimes, there’s no hostility at all: Carsplaining is just you trying to be funny when you brief your friend about your Car2Go app.)

What does it mean that ’splaining has morphed in these ways? While it’s tempting to point to a backlash against identity politics or an American allergy to received wisdom, I bet what really happened is that -splain tried to contain too many ideas and popped like a balloon. From mansplain to carsplain, the trope has steadily hemorrhaged meaning. It was a useful diagnosis. Then it was a crude rhetorical strategy. Now it’s just a lazy joke.