Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the term mansplaining being bandied around; a portmanteau of the words man and explaining.
It was inspired by a landmark essay by the American writer Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me. In it, she recalls the time a Very Important Man informed her about a book she must read, a book he’d heard about from the New York Times – not actually read himself, mind you – and that every self-respecting intellectual was talking about.
It was, as it happened, Solnit’s book. But this information failed to register, so busy was the Very Important Man going on and on ‘with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.’
Like all good words, mansplaining is infinitely malleable. One variation I particularly like is Anglosplaining, a term that popped to mind at a linguistics conference when a male presenter mentioned how he used to correct the English of a colleague from Kenya. He thought he was being helpful, he recalled – suitably shamefaced – and even imagined she appreciated it. Until she explained, eventually, that English was her first language.
Interestingly, non-native speakers of English can be Anglosplainers too. In the anecdote above, the presenter was Danish. Linguists refer to this as the non-native ‘hierarchy’. You see this hierarchy at work at Dutch universities, for example, when Indian students are required to take an IELTS test despite having been educated in English from primary school up.
Of course, native speakers are undoubtedly the biggest culprits. I may be one of them, but having learnt different languages myself, I like to think I’ve developed some awareness of the basic skills that oil the wheels of international communication. For starters, that it’s not overly helpful to doggedly persist with the English you grew up with in the Scottish Highlands or out the back of woop-woop in Australia.
And so I cringed when, at a dinner party in Cambridge, I overheard a fellow native speaker say to a foreign PhD student, in a tone that was nothing short of scandalised, ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read The Great Gatsby?’ I needn’t have worried. The student turned out to be Dutch, and he replied, entirely straight-faced, ‘So I take it you’ve read De ontdekking van de hemel?’