Published February 7, 2017
Hey girl, let me tell you about the Icelandic word of 2016, hrútskýring. It’s a portmanteau of the words hrútur (“ram”) and útskýring (“explanation”) and I probably need to connect the dots for you and clarify that it’s an Icelandic gloss for the English word “mansplaining.”
Now in its second year, the Word of the Year poll brings together members of RÚV, the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, and students of Icelandic at the University of Iceland to settle on the word that best exemplifies the national discourse over the past year. With a plurality of the vote (35%), hrútskýring beat out a shortlist of neologisms that touched on hot-button topics both locally and internationally. The leaking of world leaders’ financial documents last spring gave us Panamaskjöl (“Panama Papers”), aflandsfélag (“offshore company”), and skattaskjól (“tax haven”); the Icelandic football team’s successes at the Euro Cup proffered víkingaklapp (“viking clap”), the team’s primal, rallying gesture—and hú, the exclamation accompanying the clap; tjákn (“emoji”) gives an Icelandic name to the cutesy logograms that have become integral to cheeky digital communication; kynsegin (“gender-queer”) reflects the growing nuance in discussions of gender, sex, and sexuality; and hatursorðræða (“hate speech”) unfortunately speaks for itself.
Novelist Hallgrímur Helgason suggested hrútskýring in 2011 as a translation of “mansplaining,” a term coined in 2008 by American author Rebecca Solnit to refer to men’s tendency to explain something in a patronizing, overbearing manner, with the tacit assumption that the listener (typically female) has little understanding or knowledge of the topic explained. Solnit has pointed out that mansplaining demonstrates the overconfidence and obliviousness of the explainer more than it represents a deliberate attempt at condescension or pedantry. Mansplaining nevertheless illustrates the pernicious, unconscious assumptions that stem from
inherited gender roles: men are expected to know and to tell, while women feel and listen.
It is perhaps the clueless, well-meaning nature of mansplaining that makes hrútskýring so evocative of broader political conversations in Iceland. Although Iceland regularly tops international rankings in gender equality, and feminism has occupied a central role in mainstream national discourse for several years, the gender wage gap (currently at 14%) persists, shrinking at a stubbornly slow rate. This stagnation perhaps stems from a self-congratulatory smugness among stewards of patriarchal power, unable or unwilling to see inequality in a semblance of utopia: “But wait—actually—did you know—let me tell you: Iceland is statistically the best place to be a woman.”
In addition to its topical relevance, hrútskýring is also an excellent, multivalent bit of wordplay, far more linguistically dynamic than the English word it glosses. “Mansplaining” is a classic portmanteau, fusing “man” and “explaining” along a conspicuous seam: “man” does not, of course, sound anything like “ex.” Hrútskýring, by contrast, leaves the word útskýring (“explanation”) intact, appending to it only two letters, which allow for two, equally pertinent readings: Hrútur (“ram”) evokes the virility of Iceland’s most populous mammal species, but as the wordsmith Hallgrímur has pointed out, the letters “hr” abbreviate the Icelandic honorific herra (“mister”). Hrútskýring, he’s said, may also be written hr. Útskýring, a title well-befitting any asshat who spends five hundred words explaining things you already know.