Don't splain me, bro!

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A week ago I posted Don't skunk me, bro!, which riffed on Jonathon Owen's post Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth on Arrant Pedantry. Jonathon's post had discussed Bryan Garner's practice of declaring that certain expressions should be avoided because they are supposedly "skunked". Garner uses that term to refer to expressions that are in the process of undergoing a hotly disputed change of meaning, with the result that, in Garner's words, "any use of it is likely to distract some readers".

Shortly after posting "Don't skunk me, bro!", I got a message on Twitter from Tcherina (@grammarguidecom): "Glad to see you taking up the 'skunked' issue. I got bullied and splained when I tweeted Jonathon's piece [i.e., the post that had prompted mine], which I thought was very good."

Tcherina's use of the phrase I got…splained caught my eye. I don't know whether that was the first time I'd seen it, or maybe just the first time I'd focused on it. (After my last post, I've learned not to think that something is new just because I hadn't noticed it before, though I've been reading Language Log long enough that I should have known better). But in any case, what interested me was something that was happening at the place where the syntax of Tcherina's statement met the semantics of splain.

Splain is of course derived from explain, as is explained by Merriam-Webster (which as it happens just added mansplain to its Collegiate dictionary this month):

-Splain derives from explain and most commonly shows up in the word mansplain today. But its origins go back almost 200 years.

'Splain, the abbreviated form, shows up in stories in the 1800s, usually in phonetic renderings of a person's accent. Our earliest example comes from 1821: "One fellow, who applied for a license, being asked if he could read, replied, 'Mother reads, and I spounds and splains!'" (from an unnamed English paper quoted in the Gettysburg Compiler, 15 Aug. 1821). It's a straight rendering of explain for much of its life, including in the iconic TV show of the 1950s, "I Love Lucy," where Desi Arnez's character, Ricky, would often ask his wife to 'splain.

By the mid/late-1980s, a change in meaning had begun: "'Splain began to be used sarcastically, particularly in Usenet chat rooms, to call out someone for explaining something either without taking the original poster's comments into consideration or in an extensive and sometimes condescending way." And later, in the wake of a 2008 essay by Rebecca Solnit, "Men Explain Things to Me", the verb mansplain was coined, and "'splain became attached to a particular kind of splaining: men explaining things to women as if those women didn't know anything about the things in question."

But despite splain's having been derived from explain, Tcherina's use of splain differed from how explain is used.

Tcherina said that she "got splained"—a passive-voice construction, of which the active-voice counterpart is [somebody] splained me. If Tcherina had said "I got explained" or "somebody at work explained me," I would have understood her to have stated that she (or more specifically, something about her) had been the subject of an explanation that somebody had communicated to somebody else. In other words, I would have understood her, or the relevant characteristic, to have been the content of what was explained. And if I had wanted to explain the semantic role instantiated by the noun referring person to whom the explanation was communicated, I would have described that person as (for want of a better term) recipient or addressee of the explanation.

However, that's not how I understood what Tcherina had said, and it's not what she meant. She had used splain in a way that was parallel to bullied: "I got bullied and splained". When someone gets bullied, they are the victim of the bullying. And when Tcherina said that she had gotten splained, she meant (and I understood) that she had been the victim of the splaining.

Now, since she was (I assume) the person to whom the splanation had been communicated, she was also its recipient, just like a person to whom an explanation is communicated. But the person is told an explanation isn't usually regarded as having been victimized by the explanation. In fact, explanations are often beneficial to their recipients, since they expand that person's knowledge. However, the recipient of an explanation can be seen as a victim of the explanation if the explanation was unwanted and unappreciated, or even resented. Which was in fact how Tcherina had felt about the splanation.

And that difference between the semantics of splain and the normal semantics of explain was reflected in a corresponding difference in the syntactic behavior of the two words. With explain, the noun referring to the recipient of the explanation does not typically appear as the direct object of the verb (in a transitive construction) or as the verb's subject (in a passive construction). Rather, when the recipient is referred to explicitly, the referring noun acts as the object in a prepositional phrase, as in Betty explained something to Bob. If you have access to a copy of Beth Levin's English Verb Classes and Alternations, you can look this up; it's in section 2.1, example paragraph 118. (If you don't have a copy, you can click here.) And if you run a search on the Google ngram viewer for explained me it, explained me what happened, explain me it, or explain me what happened, you'll come up empty. [UPDATE: I should qualify my statement about how explain typically behaves to say that it applies Standard  Written English, or maybe just Standard Written American English, and not necessarily other dialects.]

I suspect that this difference isn't a coincidence. My hunch is that with explain, the content of the explanation plays a more important role in the sentence in some way—that what is explained is more important in individuating the particular explanation in question than is the identity of the person to whom the explanation is delivered. Whether that hunch would hold up if I actually tried find empirical support for it, I don't know.

But it's striking that with splain, the content of the splanation is largely beside the point. Unlike the act of explaining, the act that is seen as splaining is perceived not merely a transfer of information, but also as at best a sign of oblivious tactlessness (at best) and at worst an assertion of dominance. Indeed, that perception is precisely what turns explaining into splaining. The whole purpose of using splain rather than explain is to call attention to the perceived tactlessness or dominance. So the person to whom the splanation is delivered really is more important than the splanation's content.

For those interested in some more examples:

Few have been mansplained in quite such spectacular fashion as Lara Sharp though, who was recently cornered while simply trying to read her book by the pool.

Posting about her experience on Facebook, she documented a half-hilarious, half-exhausting tale of an older man who proceeded to explain to her how her own career worked, how he could 'mentor' her, and best of all, what the book she was reading was about.

He was, of course, wrong. And, even more predictably, then asked her out to dinner.

Brilliantly, all this occurred while Lara was trying to dig into said book, titled 'Men Explain Things To Me'. Amazon describe it as 'a touchstone of the feminist movement, inspired the term 'mansplaining'.' It's all too perfect.

[From an article that bears a title that is, in this context, ironic: "Woman gets mansplained at while reading a book about mainsplaining".]

If you're not sure what it means, mansplaining is when a man explains something to someone, usually a woman (but it can happen to men and non-binary people too), in a manner that is condescending or patronizing — and often when the person getting mansplained at has a level of expertise in the subject that the mansplainer may actually lack. [link]

[Describing what happened after the author had emceed a community meeting:]

When I finished, several people said the usual thanks or offered compliments and one man in the back made a beeline for me. He told me what a good job I'd done, then went on to give his opinion of how I could have been better and what he thought was required in facilitation. Now one can always improve and certainly, I already knew things I would have changed. But it struck me that he felt a need to educate me on my own area of expertise, without even bothering to ask my background.

In other words, I'd been mansplained. [link]

MLK's Daughter Tweeted About His Legacy And Some Dude Of Course Mansplained Her [link]

There's also this, which strikes me as strange:

A Physicist was Mansplained Her Own Work Onstage Until an Audience Member Had Enough and Intervened [link]



35 Comments

  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 12:52 am

    I mentioned in the post that Merriam-Webster has added mansplaining to its Collegiate Dictionary. You might have wondered whether that meant that they had not added it to their unabridged dictionary (which is available online, but only with a subscription).

    And the answer is both yes and no. Yes, that's what it meant, and no, they hadn't added it.

    WTF?

  2. Chad Nilep said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 2:23 am

    I wonder if this analysis applies equally to pre-mansplain "lemme 'splain you something".

    As you say, 'explain' takes a prepositional phrase. For example:
    "Mr. Kennedy, let me explain something to you." (William Parzow, at a U.S. Senate hearing in 1955)

    But "'splain" has an indirect object, even in the twentieth century:
    "Well lemme 'splain you somepin, you simple-minded fool!" (Will Thomas, Love Knows no Barriers, 1950)

  3. Asher said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 2:24 am

    Did you really just manage to 'splain 'splaining?

  4. John Walden said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 2:47 am

    It's a Monday morning and I may be being more than usually dense but with reference to:

    'With explain, the noun referring to the recipient of the explanation does not typically appear as the direct object of the verb (in a transitive construction) or as the verb's subject (in a passive construction)'

    I find nothing odd about 'I was explained the reasons'. Perhaps the objection is not so much to a passive that keeps another object but even 'I was explained that…..' doesn't ring too many alarm bells. Or is it that it works better with pronouns than with nouns? I don't think 'John was explained the reasons' or 'The patient was explained that' are especially worrying. Am I losing my ability to hear wrongness with my mind's ear? After all, I have been living for twenty-five year in a country whose language isn't English.

  5. John Walden said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 3:00 am

    "years"

  6. Matthew E said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 3:54 am

    I refer also to your attention the related term "explainypants", which should need no, uh, explanation.

  7. TIC said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    FWIW, I really like the connotation of "splain" that Tcherina's use of it reflects (or pioneers?)… To me, it conveys the negativity of the concept behind "mansplaining" — i.e., condescending lecturing — in a situation not necessarily involving a male-to-female interaction… Or, at least, in a situation where the gender roles aren't salient… I really like it… Also, I kinda like "manel" (as used in the article accessed by the final link in the OP) to refer to an all-male panel…

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    The title of this post made me idly curious if the reasonably-obvious coinage "brosplaining" was in fact extant, and it does appear to be, although still fairly rare. What I found odd, however, was an apparently non-pejorative use of that term (in a major newspaper) to describe the style of the hosts of the popular podcast "Stuff You Should Know." While perhaps not to everyone's taste, their explanatory style is very popular with their sizable audience and presumably would not be so if their listeners felt patronized, condescended to, etc. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/stuff-you-should-know-about-the-two-podcasters-who-riff-on-voodoo-body-hair-the-electoral-college/2016/10/27/1b486aea-9bb4-11e6-b3c9-f662adaa0048_story.html?utm_term=.8de46a49ae52

  9. Anthony said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    From the current New Yorker, involving someone preparing for his first time on the red carpet at the Oscars:

    "How should I hold my hands when I take a picture?" he asked Weitz. "Should they be at my side? Or—"

    Clearly, 'when a picture is taken of me' is meant.

  10. Bloix said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 8:58 am

    Several decades ago I read, in a book or article about what was then called Black English, about the characteristic dropping of unaccented first syllables. The author gave as an example a joke he said originated in Jamaica: the police arrive at man's house to serve him with a restraining order. He exclaims, "Don't strain, me, mon!" Strain, the author explains, is slang for beat – so the man thinks the police have been ordered to beat him up.
    I would guess that mansplain and 'splain are unrelated. 'Splain, I suspect, is from AAE or southern dialect and is very old. Mansplain appears to originate in the current fad for portmanteaus of all sorts. The accent on "man" in mansplain makes me doubt that it is related to 'splain.

  11. Charlotte said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    "splained" in this sense reminds me of "slimed" as a passive verb (did it exist as such before Ghostbusters? "slimed" has now moved beyond simple exoplasm….)

  12. Joe said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    "Did you really just manage to 'splain 'splaining?"

    Yes he did. I've done this kind of detailed analysis to my wife on various subjects and she usually (politely) tells me that she was hip to the analysis prior to me explaining it. And to further expand on this dead horse, the observation, "the content of the splanation is largely beside the point" is not only the point of splaining but, typically, the content is already something that the splainee already knows. So splaining's implicit meaning is that the motivation to splain is driven by other factors such as the splainers desire to appear more knowledgeable than the splainee (or, in this case, perhaps showcase another self-referential LL post).

    After being politely told that I've been splaining to my wife, I typically (sheepishly) tell her that this is my own way of explaining to myself the subject in question. She then tells me that she gave me an (un-splany) analysis last night and I obviously wasn't listening. Which is another feature of splaining – the inability to hear anyone else speak.

  13. Bloix said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    "Desi Arnez's character, Ricky, would often ask his wife to 'splain."
    That was Arnez's stage Spanish accent, not use of a slang word "splain." Spanish-speakers often have difficulty with 'x.' Listen to Ricky here at 1:12 saying "no logical 'splanation." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMZsDaTxaKo

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 9:51 am

    One good example of the AAVE first-syllable-drop phenomenon Bloix mentioned is "I Been Buked" (i.e. "rebuked"), which is the title of an old gospel song whose title then shifted to a well known dance piece (by the Alvin Ailey company). I sort of feel like the clipped form of explain should be 'plain, but wiktionary does give the syllabification as ek-splain, so either my own usage (where I feel like the whole consonant cluster stays together as the coda of the first syllable) is weird or I am an unreliable observer of my own actual usage.

  15. Bloix said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 10:11 am

    JW Brewer – note that we aspirate the p in plain but not in explain or 'splain. Initial p as in plain really is a different consonant from the p in 'splain.

  16. Theophylact said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 10:13 am

    Shut up he splained

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    Bloix, sure, but the shift occurs automatically/subconsciously for native speakers. If it were decided (via the sort of tacit consensus that drives slang innovation) that 'presso was henceforth the hip new clipped form of "espresso" I assume the aspiration would naturally adjust w/o anyone having to think about it. Desire to avoid that change doesn't seem like it would be strong enough to determine 'spresso over 'presso for the clipped form.

  18. ajay said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 10:24 am

    "How should I hold my hands when I take a picture?" he asked Weitz. "Should they be at my side? Or—" Clearly, 'when a picture is taken of me' is meant.

    Yes, I've come across that – "she takes a good picture" is something that you could say of a photographer, obviously, but also of (say) a model or actress. As in here https://theoxfordpub.com/2014/09/24/gallery/ – "she takes a good picture does the old girl" referring not to a person at all but a pub!
    In fact, most of the ghits for this phrase are apparently referring to "she" being the subject of a photo, rather than the photographer…

  19. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 10:30 am

    @Chad Nilep:

    I wonder if this analysis applies equally to pre-mansplain "lemme 'splain you something".

    As you say, 'explain' takes a prepositional phrase. For example:
    "Mr. Kennedy, let me explain something to you." (William Parzow, at a U.S. Senate hearing in 1955)

    But "'splain" has an indirect object, even in the twentieth century:
    "Well lemme 'splain you somepin, you simple-minded fool!" (Will Thomas, Love Knows no Barriers, 1950)

    I've updated the post to qualify my comments about the behavior of explain by saying that they don't necessarily apply to dialects other than Standard Written English, or maybe even dialects other than Standard Written American English.

    But even with that qualification, Tcherina's "I got…splained" is different. First, unlike "lemme 'splain you somepin", nothing in her sentence referred to the content of the splanation. And second, I'm guessing that the 'splain in "lemme 'splain you somepin" is intended only as a phonetic spelling of a Southern-dialect or AAVE pronunciation, and doesn't reflect the meaning shift that the introduction of mansplaining has brought about.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    John Walden: "I was explained the reasons" sounds strange to me. The active version of that would be "They explained me the reasons", but I'd expect that only from non-native speakers—classically, Spanish speakers.

    I hope I explained that without splaining you.

  21. Meara said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

    Would it not be akin to "got told"? As in "ooooh, he got TOLD!" after someone corrects him? Or is that too similar to "told off"?

  22. Bartleby said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

    I too like the use of the "GET passive" with "splained." Often, this construction involves some sort of victimization: get mugged, get murdered, get slapped, get run over, get beaten up, get fired, get married (oh, I guess that one's different–maybe). So the victimizing aspect of splaining is well expressed with the GET passive form.

  23. David Morris said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

    Bartleby: got herself pregnant!

  24. Roscoe said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

    Area Man Goes And Gets Himself Hit By A Goddamn Bus

    https://local.theonion.com/area-man-goes-and-gets-himself-hit-by-a-goddamn-bus-1819565155

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    I suppose someone who "got him/herself 'splained" would have been inviting that unfortunate outcome by his/her own misjudgment or suboptimal behavior?

    For another example of the effect of adding a reflexive pronoun to the "got VERBed" formulation, see

    "But you know it could be a hassle
    Trying to explain myself to a police officer
    About how it was your old lady got herself stiffed"

  26. Toby said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

    What about the hollowing out of the old meaning of "bullying"? It seems now to mean someone disagreed with me.

  27. Birdseeding said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 7:37 am

    I think the older dialectal sense of "'splaining" and the one discussed in the article are wholly separate developments. There's a flora of different splainings – besides "mansplaining", there's at the very least "whitesplaining", "straightsplaining" and "cissplaining" (each, in turn, an order of magnitude less common than the preceding term on Google), but it seems to me they've all appeared since "mansplaining" broke through.

  28. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

    "Mansplaining" was nominated in the Most Creative category in the American Dialect Society's 2012 Word of the Year voting. In the "Among the New Words" recap of the WOTY nominees in the Summer 2013 issue of American Speech (link), the productivity of "-splain" was noted. Mark Peters provided a nice roundup of "X-splaining" forms for Vocabulary.com in Oct. 2013 (link).

  29. ajay said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

    Often, this construction involves some sort of victimization: get mugged, get murdered, get slapped, get run over, get beaten up, get fired, get married

    But then again – got promoted, got lucky, got picked for the team, got first place, got published…

  30. Mick O said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 3:17 pm

    I'm also a bit curious about the phrase "Well, actually" and how it is linked with splaining, or at least mansplaining.

    The suggestion is that many mansplainers begin their splanations with "Well, actually…"

    Know Your Meme has even shared the "Well Actually Starter Pack" showing items that are stereotypically associated with mansplainers: Vaporizer, fedora, DeVry University, Inforwars, Dan Bilzarian etc. suggesting that "well, actually" is rather well defined at this point.

    http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1116378-starter-packs

    I've heard this joke make the rounds as well:

    "Where do mansplainers get their water?
    From a well, actually"

    https://twitter.com/keegzzz/status/720381707149451265?lang=en

    This also intersects a little bit with skunked terms, but for different reasons. I would never in a million years use the phrase "Well, actually" now because of this. In my mind, that means the term is "skunked" but not for reasons of confusion or controversy.

    -Mick

  31. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

    @Toby:

    What about the hollowing out of the old meaning of "bullying"? It seems now to mean someone disagreed with me.

    I haven't noticed anything like that. And to the extent that your comment was prompted by Tcherina's statement that she "got bullied and splained", there's not remotely enough context for you to be able to conclude that she was using bullied to mean disagreed with.

  32. Toby said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    @nealgoldfarb Please don't 'splain me (which is surely what you are doing).

    I was commenting on the new usage of "bully" seen everywhere (I am surprised you have not seen it) which comment was a generalisation on meaning-change merely prompted by the use of the term rather than a comment on her use of the term in her situation (and I would note that there is not merely enough evidence for you to contend otherwise about her use of the term).

  33. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

    Neal Goldfarb –
    Toby is trolling, Please don't feed him.

  34. Gwen Katz said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

    I see we now also have the noun form "splanation." I like it.

  35. Zach Boyle said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

    I most definitely agree with your conclusion. In many cases, a person who "splains" something to another person is expressing their feelings of intellectual superiority towards that person. It's unfortunate that this kind of verbal abuse isn't popularly recognized as a form of bullying, like you mentioned

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