The word “mansplaining” has been with us since 2008, when aggrieved internet commenters started using the term to refer to blowhardy trolls. Last year, the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognized the term, defining mansplaining as “to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, esp. (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronizing or chauvinistic attitude.”
The word may be relatively new, but the concept of a mansplainer—a person determined to demonstrate his or her expertise on a topic, regardless of the listener’s knowledge or interest in said lecture—has been around for centuries. (Note: while “mansplaining” is a behavior most often ascribed to men, it would be sexist and inaccurate not to recognize the many women equally capable of self-important pontification.)
During the Industrial Revolution, the rapid expansion of the middle classes created a market for etiquette manuals to teach the newly wealthy the social graces those born into privilege were schooled in from birth. One popular edition was the 1859 English manual The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, which contains this caution against proto-mansplaining:
The man who makes too much of his peculiar excellencies; who attempts to engross conversation with the one topic he is strong in; who having travelled is always telling you “what they do on the Continent”; who being a scholar, overwhelms you with Menander or Manetho; who, having a lively wit, showers down on the whole company a perpetual hail of his own bon mots, and laughs at them himself . . . or who, being a great man in any line, puts himself prominently forward, condescends, talks loud, or asserts his privileges, is a vulgar man, be he king, kaiser, or cobbler.
A thirst for upward mobility in the US made etiquette books equally popular there. In the original version of Emily Post’s 1922 classic Etiquette, Post decries the self-important behavior we might now refer to as mansplaining.
“The man who has been led to believe that he is a brilliant and interesting talker has been led to make himself a rapacious pest,” she wrote. “No conversation is possible between others whose ears are within reach of his ponderous voice; anecdotes, long-winded stories, dramatic and pathetic, stock his repertoire; but worst of all are his humorous yarns at which he laughs uproariously though every one else grows solemn and more solemn.”
This was a particularly prominent affliction among the rich, Post noted: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume that they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, is something which may be left to the psychologist to answer, but most of those thrown much in contact with millionaires will agree that an attitude of infallibility is typical of a fair majority.”
Many of Post’s original dicta are no longer relevant—it is now socially acceptable for a woman to sit to the left of a man in an automobile, thank goodness—but her suggested cure for tone-deaf lecturing absolutely still applies: “There is a simple rule, by which if one is a voluble chatterer (to be a good talker necessitates a good mind) one can at least refrain from being a pest or a bore,” she wrote. “And the rule is merely, to stop and think. Nearly all the faults or mistakes in conversation are caused by not thinking.”