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September 14, 2017  |  Friday words #88  |  2280 hit(s)

This week we're coming to you from the the desk that I've finally managed to install and configure in my home officenook. I trust you'll appreciate the beneficial effect that this has had on this week's words. Speaking of which.

By now, everyone has probably heard the term mansplain. According to a couple of dictionaries, to mansplain is to explain something in a "condescending or patronizing" manner. Obviously (altho if it's not obvious, there's also this piece on the Merriam-Webster site), the term invokes the idea of a man explaining something to a woman. Some people specify that mansplaining specifically involves the man explaining to the woman something she already knows. And as noted by various folks (example), there's been some semantic broadening, such that people sometimes use mansplaining to mean anytime a man explains something, sometimes not even specifically to a woman. (Someone has coined the term critique drift for this type of semantic broadening.)

As I say, you already know all this. I bring it all up again because not long ago I ran across an interestingly related term: ladysplain. Here's where I saw it:

We could have an interesting discussion about what the author, Cynthia Lee, means here by ladysplain. My interpretation was something along the lines of "give you a woman's perspective on."

This is not the only use of this term. In an essay on The Monthly, Annabel Crabb defines ladysplaining quite differently: "apologising for something she did actually know." That is, Crabb is inverting the definitions of man- and ladysplaining. In her definition, where mansplaining is about confidently proclaiming, perhaps without expertise, ladysplaining is about reluctance to speak in spite of competence.

I admit that I like the parallelism of Crabbe's definition. But I find Lee's use of the term to be more, what, empowering. Every usage of mansplaining is intended to be negative. Crabbe's use of ladysplaining has negative connotations—someone presumably doesn't aspire to ladysplain in the way she defines the term. Lee's usage, on the other hand, is neutral-to-positive.

For all I know, people are throwing out the term with other definitions as well. Whether the term will persist, and if it does, what definition finally jells, remains to be seen.

Word origins. Someone at work brought up the term akimbo. Bit of a strange word innit. If you're "arms akimbo," you're standing with your hands on your hips with your elbows sticking out. (There has to be an emoji of this, right?) If you're wracking your brain to remember whether you've heard akimbo in any context except "arms akimbo," let me *splain you that "arms akimbo" is far and away the most common collocation involving akimbo, at least per the COCA corpus:

Still, as you can see in the graph, and as explicitly noted in M-W, a person might also sit with legs akimbo.

Ok, fine, where did this odd term come from? An interesting theory is that it's related to a term in Old Icelandic (í keng boginn) that means "bent like a bow." However, although it's possible to squint and see a relationship, the words aren't used in Old Icelandic in a way that corresponds to the English term. Another theory is that the kim part of akimbo is related to an old French word cane, meaning "pitcher," and that standing arms akimbo means you look like a pitcher with a handle. (Well, with two handles.) Indeed, there's an expression in French—faire le pot a deux anses—meaning "to make the pot with two handles" that's used to refer to someone standing arms akimbo. Alas, there's isn't written evidence to clearly link -kim- to cane. A third theory is that akimbo comes from keen+bow in Middle English, meaning "sharp angle." But the Middle Englishers used keen to mean sharp-as-in-cutting, not sharp-as-in-angle. In short, we don't know. So keep those theories coming!

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Josh B.   15 Sep 17 - 9:39 AM

I don't have any theories for akimbo. But I did learn that jell can be spelled that way, which was new to me. I've always spelled that verb the same way as its noun cousin: gel.

mike   15 Sep 17 - 9:58 AM

I was moved to double-check my spelling. Looks like both jell and gel are verbs, and a cursory look at the definitions suggests they mean the same thing. I wonder whether there is a techincal difference, and that e.g. chemists use gel but would never use jell because it doesn't mean exactly the same thing or something.

Josh B.   15 Sep 17 - 10:09 AM

I also looked it up before I wrote my comment, and I got the impression that gel is the more common spelling in Britain, while jell is more common in North America. And yet my natural inclination is to spell it gel, despite learning and speaking a very North American English. Maybe one Friday you can include new-to-you spellings of already known words :-)