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Mansplaining the new-word-pocalypse

Last month I examined the newly popular phrase fiscal cliff, a contender for the various Words of the Year traditionally announced every winter. The main such event is the American Dialect Society’s, which took place earlier this month. Its full list of nominated words and other “vocabulary items” in different categories is always worth reading, offering an insight into the neologisms and catchphrases that caught people’s imaginations over the course of the year.

In the main category, fiscal cliff was soon left standing by the progressive term marriage equality – which had already been voted Most Useful – and by the surprise nomination hashtag, which went on to win. Though some observers found hashtag a bit 2011, there’s no denying its growing profile. As Ben Zimmer, Chair of the ADS New Words Committee, remarked, hashtag has even been heard in speech, “introducing a snappy metacommentary on what had just been said”. (That last link, by the way, includes video footage from the proceedings.)

Most readers will recognise some nominated terms and be less familiar with others. Gate lice (“airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board”), voted Most Creative, was new to me but made immediate visual sense. Still, I’d have liked to see mansplaining win (“a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience”). It’s not especially creative – just another man-word, really – but it is very useful and has inspired several variations, such as whitesplaining, geeksplaining, and others based specifically on people’s names.

Portmanteaus, being a popular form of neologisms, feature prominently in the American Dialect Society list. There’s the unpromising beardruff and alpacalypse, the political pejoratives Romnesia and Obamageddon, and the widely reviled phablet. This latter may seem too silly-sounding to catch on – together with YOLO it was voted Least Likely to Succeed – but don’t forget the derision that greeted iPad when it first appeared, or how quickly we got over it.

Joint winners in the Most Useful category were –(ma)geddon and –(po)calypse, so-called “disaster libfixes”, though the Economist was not convinced they deserved it. Honourable mention goes to hate-watching (“continuing to follow a television show despite having an aversion to it”). A friend who works in a newsroom told me she hate-watched The Newsroom and “almost took pleasure in how divorced from reality it was and how hackneyed the script was”. Beyond a certain point of irritation, we may feel a perverse kind of enjoyment. That may be a good approach to phrases we hate.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Stan: Talking about ‘man-words’, I noticed this gem in the Guardian last summer. Apparently, in the runup to the Olympics, Boris Johnson had a manicure in the Proctor & Gamble salon at the athletes’ village. The article reported this, then commented: “…the security fiasco is officially classed as ‘developing’, but Johnson refused to be distracted by such fripperies. When the going gets tough, Boris gets manscaped.

    The word is used with a different meaning elsewhere; the process is not something that anyone does in public, I imagine. I’ll leave you to discover its other meaning (if you don’t already know it!).

  • ‘Phablet’ may be phar from phabulous, but can anybody think of a better short word meaning ‘object that is a blend of a phone and a tablet computer’? If nobody can, I predict ‘phablet’ won’t phail despite all its phoes.

  • I don’t want to sound like I’m mansplaining, Stan, but the word ‘mansplain’ came up in 2011, in a Comment to your ever-popular Watch Your Manguage post. Interesting to hear about the prize for -mageddon and -pocalypse, too.One of the most productive-ever words in this category is the -gate suffix, which we might hear more about in the coming months: there’s a Watergate-related anniversary coming up (the burglars were convicted on 30th January 1973). An old one but a good one, which shows no sign of dying out. The research that Paul Cook and his colleagues are doing should be useful here: it’s about automatically detecting new portmanteau words of the type you discuss, and Paul did a post for us on the subject a while back.

  • Gill: Manscaping is a great example, since it seems to have caught on more than most of its kind. And yes, I’m afraid I did know what it meant, so I have you and Marina Hyde to thank for the indelible image of Boris doing it!

    Terry: A good point, ephectively made. It’ll be interesting to see in a year or two’s time how phablet is pharing.

  • Michael: A Watergate-related anniversary sounds like a recipe for Watergatemageddon! Let’s hope there are no accompanying scandals, or the blends will get extremely silly. (And at this stage, there’s really no need for any more -gate coinages.)
    Thanks for reminding me of Paul’s post, which was well worth revisiting.

  • Nice summary, Stan. Thanks – will use it with my A level students.

    Mansplaining is such a cracker, which even men (well, pathetic ones like me) might be able to relate to when they’ve had the joy of a dad/father-in-law mansplain something computer or car-related to them.

    Yesterday, @HelenLewis posted a quick blog where a critic of her stance on some argument or other accused her of “privilegesplaining”, a term as clunky and awkward as the criticism was unwarranted!

  • About ‘manscaping’ again: When I first read that Boris had been manscaped (i.e. manicured, according to Marina Hyde), my interpretation was as follows: Hedges and lawns are described as ‘landscaped’ or ‘manicured’, so ‘manscape’ emphasises the ‘man’ in manicure (divorcing it from its original Latin meaning ‘hand’), and couples it with the ‘scape’ of ‘landscape’ to suggest ‘shaping’ – so, ‘man-shaping’! That is fine when applied to a man’s fingernails. But the ‘real’ meaning of ‘manscape’ is more fitting, because of the association of ‘(land)scaping’ with trimming and shaping grass and hedges.

  • Dan: I imagine almost everyone has been mansplained to at one point or another, but it is mostly women who are made suffer it. Privilegesplaining may be clunky but it’s pretty transparent, and it shows again how productive -splaining is proving to be.

    Gill: Thanks for the the analysis. I agree with how you’ve interpreted it, and am now doubly determined never to write about Stanscaping..

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