June 5, 2015

Is “manspreading” a word? And is it a crime?


It's a common sight to see men taking up too much space on the subway in a way that makes women feel uncomfortable.

It’s a common sight to see men taking up too much space on the subway in a way that makes women feel uncomfortable.

The outrage over “manspreading”—a new word submission that the Collins Dictionary defines as “a male passenger in a bus or train splaying his legs and denying space to the passenger sitting next to him”—reached an all time high in 2014 when people started posting pictures to social media of male offenders they observed on the subway or train.

The MTA took notice, and began a subway campaign of public service ads in December 2014 to discourage manspreading and to enforce their “rules of conduct.” While the word manspreading does not appear in these rules, there is a part under “Section 1050.7: Disorderly Conduct” that prohibits the practice:

No person on or in any facility or conveyance shall occupy more than one seat on a station, platform or conveyance when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers.

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Reports covering the developments used variations on the term manspreading, including “man spread” and “man spreaders.”

During a December 30, 2014 episode of the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, “manspreading” is mentioned by Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and executive editor of Vocabulary.com, as one of the words that was newly prominent in 2014.

Leonard Lopate: Now “man” has suddenly been attached to a whole bunch of words — manspreading is a word that all New Yorkers have felt a need for….

Ben Zimmer: … Manspreading takes the man prefix — and perhaps mansplaining helps to explain the popularity of manspreading as a term this year because it sounds a bit similar — that’s the phenomenon on the subway when a man takes up two or even three spaces on the subway spreading his legs in a v-shaped fashion. And the MTA has actually started an ad campaign to get guys to stop doing that.

So while manspreading is definitely a word—the New York Times calls it “a name almost as distasteful as the practice itself”—until last week, it was only a matter of etiquette and behavior. But when Gothamist reported that two men were arrested for manspreading, it appeared that the offense may also be recognized as a crime by the NYPD.

On a recent visit to the arraignment part in Brooklyn’s criminal court, PROP volunteers observed that police officers had arrested two Latino men on the charge of “man spreading” on the subway, presumably because they were taking up more than one seat and therefore inconveniencing other riders. Before issuing an [adjournment contemplating dismissal] for both men, the judge expressed her skepticism about the charge because of the time of the arrests: “12:11AM, I can’t believe there were many people on the subway”.

This possibility inspired a range of reactions— concerns about racial profiling since the two men were Latino, the citation of manspreading as “a new Broken Windows crime,” resurfacing traumatic memories of being the victim of a manspreader, and outrage over the potential loss of personal freedom.

And while the MTA campaign has been criticized for its cost (some reports say it cost more than $76,000) and by some men for being sexist, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz confirmed that advertisements for the MTA’s rules of conduct campaign will continue to run.

And an NYPD spokesman—who declined to use the word “manspreading” in its full form—indicated that the arrests of the two men could not have been for only that offense: “Spreading is not a felony or a misdemeanor. In New York,  you can receive a summons for something like disorderly conduct, but not for spreading.”


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.