(CNN) If you’ve ever crammed into the back of a Toyota with one or more males over the age of seven, you’re likely familiar with the phenomenon recently popularized as ‘manspreading’.
A target of women’s websites and public transit authorities, the practice involves the widening of a man’s legs while seated such that those adjacent must bonsai themselves into what little sittable space remains in a bus or airplane row.
Or, in the case of subway benches, often abstain from sitting at all.
Who are these entitled thigh wideners? And why has this only now become a recognized social phenomenon?
What critical man-mass elevated this interpersonal mansgression to the level of cultural manstay?
And — at the risk of mansplaining — it turns out there’s much in a name, albeit an unimaginative one.
Because, while the formation of the seated V is as old as recumbency itself, calling it manspreading has helped it achieve such widespread manfamy.
Fixing the prefix
There was a time when a man could do or wear something without it necessitating its own gender-specific prefix — slip on a pair of flip-flops, grab your rucksack and hit the town with one of your bros.
Now, however, those are mandals on your feet, a manbag on your shoulder and a man date to which you’ve just committed yourself for the evening.
It’s a means of (lazily) ascribing male characteristics to characteristically female things — some would say to the detriment of both genders, but with the express intent of ridiculing the former.
There’s no question: It’s getting tougher and tougher to be a man in this world.
Admittedly, we’re nowhere near that trend actually ascending to the level of qualifiedly “tough” at all, but the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t helping matters.
Last year, the gold mandard (sorry) of English elocution dignified with its own entry the word “manspreading,” defined as “the practice whereby a man, especially one traveling 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.”
Cheap but effective, the term has only recently gained traction, but the practice predates the OED itself.
In 1836, The Times of London published a series of guidelines for considerate coexistence on public transportation titled the Omnibus Law.
Manspread mic drop
Right there at No. 5 (out of 12) are the underpinnings of what we would come to know 180 years later as manspreading: “Sit with your limbs straight, and do not with your legs describe an angle of 45, thereby occupying the room of two persons.”
It was evidently one of the earliest recorded mic drops, because nearly two centuries would pass before the next major polemic on the subject, an AM New York article published in 2014, would again admonish public transportation’s most self-indulgent seat imperialists.
It, however, is regarded as the first such screed to give name to their crimes against plier-legged fellow passengers.
“Manspreading” had gone mainstream.
What was once an unspoken infraction was now a full-blown cultural construct. And if you ask Oxford, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is to credit/blame.
New name, old problem
By Oxford English Dictionary standards, the term “manspreading” skyrocketed into common use, powered by the MTA’s fall 2014 Courtesy Counts campaign.
Now the agency has launched an exhibit dedicated in part to the social misdemeanor, called “Transit Etiquette Or: How I Learned to Stop Spitting and Step Aside in 25 Languages.”
The exhibit is out to illustrate that while the term might be modern, the act of manspreading is as old as group seating.
“There have been campaigns like this going back to almost the beginning of the subway,” says Senior Manager of Exhibitions for the MTA’s New York Transit Museum Rob Delbagno, suggesting a measure of futility in trying to repel the manspreading menace.
(Jordan Burchette is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles)