Words in the News


Written by Liz Potter

Public transport in our cities seems to grow more crowded all the time. It therefore came as no surprise to learn this week that the transport authorities in Madrid have sought to remind passengers of the importance of respecting their fellow passengers’ personal space. What is slightly surprising is that they have chosen to do so by using an English word. In response to a campaign from a women’s group using the hashtag ‘MadridSinManspreading’, the capital’s Municipal Transport Company has agreed to put up signs on city buses and trains to discourage ‘el manspreading.’ The signs show a faceless male figure with legs – and arms – spread wide to invade the neighbouring seat.

The term manspreading, which appeared in the early years of the present century, describes the way in which some men sit on public transport, with their legs wide apart and feet planted firmly on the floor. Explanations for the practice range from the anatomical through the socioliogical to the practical: if you spread your legs wide you deter other people from sitting next to you, thus gaining extra space. And if they do sit next to you and you fail to withdraw, they face a choice between having your splayed limbs clamped against theirs for the duration of the journey and shrinking into the smallest space possible to avoid them.

It remains to be seen whether this campaign, like others around the world, will have any impact at all on passengers’ behaviour.

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Liz Potter


  • This word manspreading is biased against the man. Bodyspreading is more appropriate since it is gender-neutral.

  • Thank you for your comment. The term ‘manspreading’ arose because people observed a certain phenomenon and gave it a name. It may be that a gender neutral term will arise some day, but it hasn’t happened yet. There is a parallel term, ‘womanspreading’, used mainly to refer to women putting their bags on unused seats, but it doesn’t seem to have entered many dictionaries yet. Dictionaries record the way language is used, rather than the way it should be used, and the term discussed in this post is the well-established ‘manspreading’.

  • This article made me laugh hysterically ! As a business woman, I have encountered ‘manspreading’ numerous times; mostly by men and a handful of women. What is the recommended tactic when someone is ‘manspreading’ you on a plane? I have always wanted to say, “If you feel the need to spread over into my seat, you will have to pay for part of my airline ticket!”

  • Women are allowed to take up more area in defense of their ‘space’. When a woman does it, it is seen as defensive. When a man does it, it is seen as aggression. A woman is deemed to have more right to her privacy and ‘comfort zone’ than a man. It’s a nod to a culture and time when women were respected. I would give any woman a gracious pass for ‘womanspeading’, whereas I’d consider any man who was ‘manspreading’ to be a jerk.

  • Thanks for your interesting comment. I hadn’t thought of this aspect of manspreading vs womanspreading before.

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