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The word manspreading was popularized by the MTA, although they they never officially used it.

Manspreading: how New York City’s MTA popularized a word without actually saying it

New York City, home of Oxford Dictionaries’ New York offices, has made numerous contributions to the English lexicon through the years, as disparate as knickerbocker and hip hop. One of Gotham’s most recent impacts was the popularization of manspreading, defined in the latest update of Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the practice whereby a man, especially one on public transportation, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats.’

The word met our criteria for inclusion by amassing a large amount of evidence in a wide variety of sources, and it did so in a remarkably short period of time. As the chart below shows, evidence of manspreading on Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, which is used to track the emergence of new words, closely corresponded with the launch of a campaign by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to encourage courteous behavior on the subway — including ending the practice of taking up more than one seat. Evidence of the word manspreading first registered on our tracking corpus in November 2014 when the campaign was first ‘teased’, and the word’s use shot into the stratosphere in December, when the campaign officially launched.

manspreading frequency

Most of this early evidence directly mentions the MTA’s ‘Courtesy Counts’ public service campaign, and in the minds of New Yorkers the two are connected — but the MTA assiduously avoided using the word manspreading in its communications. Instead, the posters say ‘Dude… Stop the Spread, Please.’ The Courtesy Counts campaign targets 12 different behaviors, including ‘pole hogging’, ‘primping’, loud music, and the wearing of backpacks, but press coverage tended to focus in particular on the ‘stop the spread’ poster, and to refer to the offending posture as manspreading. But how did the MTA’s campaign make the word ubiquitous without actually using it?

manspreading MTA poster

The MTA poster.

The spread of manspread

Manspreading had been simmering on social media for some time before it entered the mainstream consciousness on the coattails of the MTA last winter. Manspreading and related forms are evidenced on Twitter from as early as 2008, although the precise meaning isn’t always clear. An entry for man spread was added to Urban Dictionary in 2010, but with a more general and non-pejorative meaning: ‘where a dude sits down on a chair and spreads out his legs to make a V shape with them.’ By August 2013, the connection with public transport was being made in Australia, and the following spring even some French-speaking Twitter users were using the term to complain about their fellow passengers on the Métro in Paris. 2013 also saw the phenomenon of manspreading (though not the word itself) gain prominence with the founding of a popular Tumblr, Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train, which invited its audience to submit pictures of the offending behavior, soon followed by other similar projects devoted to the public shaming of people occupying multiple seats. Interest in the phenomenon was increasing, and a word had emerged to refer to it. All that was needed was a catalyst to raise the word’s profile, and the MTA’s campaign seems to have provided that.

Credit for forging the connection between stop the spread and manspread most likely belongs to the newspaper amNewYork, which is distributed free of charge to NYC commuters. As a commuter paper, it is understandably concerned with matters pertaining to the subway, and in October 2014, even before the MTA’s campaign had been announced, it printed an article headlined:  ‘“Man spread” a widening blight on public transportation, say riders’. A straphanger interviewed for the article said she wished the MTA would ‘put some posters up on the train of a guy sitting like that with a slash through it’. When the MTA announced it was making that dream a reality the following month, amNewYork used the M-word again: ‘Rude riders who unnecessarily take up space—backpack wearers and “man spreaders” – will get a refresher in transit manners’ (17 Nov. 2014). After that, the MTA and manspreading were conceptually united. Within days of the teaser announcement, man- had crossed the pond to the UK press, with the Huddersfield Daily Examiner mentioning the MTA campaign and asking its readers to share their own peeves about commuter behavior. Once the campaign actually kicked off in December 2014, the term truly went viral and international, appearing in publications from England, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Korea, and more; by 23 December, the Times of India was declaring ‘Mumbai’s got its own “man-spreaders”’.

Manspreading hit the airwaves, as a topic of segments on The Daily Show and the Jimmy Fallon Show, among others. Celebrities who dared to ride the New York subway were caught up in the manspreading mania, with Tom Hanks being forced to defend his subway posture against manspreading claims, and Dame Helen Mirren commenting of a fellow rider who encroached upon her seat with a wide stance that ‘He’s doing the classic, the manspreading thing’.Mirren went on to note that while the word was new, the practice wasn’t: ‘they’ve always done it! It’s just now they’re being called on it’. Indeed, the MTA identified the seat-monopolization scourge in , but at that time referred to the offenders as ‘space hogs’. A novel aspect of the term manspreading is that it puts the blame for the activity squarely at the feet of the masculine sex.

subway sun space hog

Is manspreading sexist?

It was no accident that the MTA eschewed the word manspreading. Like the Philadelphia-area transit authority SEPTA, which launched a similar campaign (‘Dude, it’s rude’) in 2014, the MTA relied on the word dude. Like guy, dude can refer either specifically to a male person, as in Aerosmith’s 1987 Dude (Looks Like a Lady), or be used (especially as a form of address), for a person of either gender. This gave the agency plausible deniability on any charges of sexist stereotyping, which would not have been the case if they had used the neologism. As interest in manspreading grew around the world in the wake of the MTA campaign the Toronto Transit Commission was the target of competing efforts by customers, as some urged it to adopt a ban on manspreading and others circulated a petition requesting it avoid the term as sexist for unfairly targeting the behavior of male passengers.

Manspreading follows closely on the heels of a similar buzzword, mansplaining, which refers to the practice (by a man) of explaining something in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing. In both cases, the male activity is often regarded as an expression of masculine privilege, and the naming of the phenomenon enables its perpetrators to be more easily ‘called out. The word man has been a productive element in new words in recent years, and many of its formations, like man boobs, man date, man purse, man cave, man crush, man flu, man hug, mankini, and manscaping, have a quality of mild mockery, poking fun either at masculine foibles, or at the strict limitations of heteronormative notions of masculinity. The word bro, originally short for brother but now most often denoting a type of affable, sporty young man with a penchant for homosociality, has been responsible for a similar flowering of neologisms. There is a critique underlying some of these formations, but it is gentle rather than strident, and their use is not limited to the fairer sex, indicating that the target is in on the joke. These terms carry a mere soupçon of sexism — just enough to preserve a sense of edgy snarkiness that makes them humorous and hashtaggable.

A mutually beneficial arrangement

The association between the MTA’s Courtesy Counts campaign and the word manspreading was unintentional but symbiotic, yielding benefits to both. For journalists, the combination of a punchy neologism describing a widely recognized but hitherto unnamed phenomenon with an actual news hook — a campaign by a major city’s transportation authority — proved irresistible. A flurry of news articles around the world took the word manspreading from unknown to familiar in a matter of months. At the same time, that coverage brought tremendous attention to the MTA’s courtesy campaign, making it successful beyond the agency’s wildest expectations (in raising awareness, at least — whether it actually changes New Yorkers’ behavior remains to be seen). The word manspreading existed before the MTA’s campaign, and it might eventually have been popularized without it, but the ‘Dude, stop the spread’ stick man thrust it into the limelight. Whether the word will continue to succeed, or prove a transient phenomenon, only time will tell.

Photo credit: Richard Yeh / WNYC
“Stop the Spread” poster: (C) Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Used with permission.
“Subway Sun” photo: (C) New York Transit Museum. Used with permission. 

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