Writers have always enjoyed inventing words. Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl, two of our favourite authors, created whole lexicons of new words as part of the worlds they imagined (see previous blog posts). One of the best-loved poems in the English language is Carroll’s nonsense rhyme that begins
‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe …’
You won’t find many of these words in a dictionary! But while some new words are playful nonsense, others move into the language and become part of everyday speech.
The American writer Rebecca Solnit didn’t coin the word mansplain herself. The word was inspired by Men explain things to me, her 2008 essay on gender and power. She described a situation in which a man explained something to her in a condescending manner. The word mansplain appeared on a blog shortly afterwards, and quickly gained popularity. It was included in The New York Times Word of the Year list in 2010 and was chosen as Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s National Dictionary) Word of the Year 2014. From the United States and Australia it travelled to Britain and was added to the online edition of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in March 2016.
Mansplain is an example of a portmanteau word (thank you, Lewis Carroll!) in which man is combined with explain. It is one of a number of neologisms – new words – that relate to gender characteristics and stereotypes, for example, man flu, man bag, manspreading. Can you think of any similar words? As well as man, other words relating to gender that combine to make compounds are bro, chick, dad, dude, mum and include the following. Can you guess what they mean?
- chick flick
- dad dancing
- dude food
- yummy mummy
Words like these show our creative approach to language, based on a love of wordplay. Many of these words are humorous, although some people find them offensive, and mansplain has been criticized for being sexist. However, the role of a lexicographer is to track and record language as it changes and evolves, reflecting current patterns and developments. If a word is used often enough in written and spoken language, then it
is considered for inclusion in a dictionary. Not all the words in this post will make it to the next edition of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, but they help us to identify trends in language. Which new words will you add to your personal lexicon?
1. bromance a very close friendship between men
2. chick flick a film that is intended especially for women
3. dad dancing dancing to pop music in an unfashionable way by older men
4. dude food food, especially with meat, that men like
5. mandals sandals (= light open shoes) for men
6. mumsy having a comfortable but dull and old-fashioned appearance
7. yummy mummy an attractive young woman who is the mother of a young child or children
About the author: Victoria Bull is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining Oxford University Press in 2004, she taught English to adults from many countries in London. She lives in the Cotswolds, where she enjoys reading chick lit while eating girl food.
Is there a word or phrase you would like to see featured as Word of the Month? It should be something that is new to the language or something that is being used in a new way. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. (All comments will need to be approved before they appear on the site.)