Separated by a Common Language – Pants!

Of all the words that divide English from the version spoken in North America, none causes more confusion than ‘Pants’. In English they are underwear whilst in America they refer to trousers, so how did this very curious dichotomy come about.

To begin we must go back to the eighteenth century, men wore breeches, short trousers that were buckled or buttoned below the knee underneath drawers were worn, garments similar to the modern boxer shorts. Women wore skirts over chemises or petticoats, and that was all.

Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century ‘long breeches’ were introduced.

The word trousers did exist in the eighteenth century, in both Britain and North America. They were a protective garment, usually of leather, worn over breeches when travelling in rough country. In the late eighteenth century these were adopted as part of military dress, the British Army, serving in India and the Peninsula, soon started wearing them as the only garment over draws.

Via the army the word entered Britain, and soon became the general term for the garment. The Duke of Wellington was once refused entry to a top London club for wearing trousers rather than breeches.

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Trousers, breeches and ??

The other word used for trousers was pantaloons, originally this was the name of a character in the commedia dell’arte, who wore loose trousers. The word became attached to the garment, and in North America was the word generally used. It was rapidly abbreviated to pants.

Until well into the nineteenth century all children wore dresses until they were about five years old, the loose garment covering the nappies (diapers – another dichotomy to be discussed later). Boys were then ‘breeched’ and girls continued with their dresses, this time with nothing under them. Then at the beginning of the nineteenth century an intermediate step was introduced for girls, long trousers under the dresses, termed pantalettes.

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A girl & her doll wearing pantalettes

About the same time women started to wear drawers under their skirts, the word pantalettes was abbreviated to pants which now meant underwear.


Filed under Separated by a common language

10 responses to “Separated by a Common Language – Pants!

  1. Interesting. In Spanish trousers are ‘pantalon’, singular.
    I recently learnt, thanks to an Australian friend who visited me at the beach last summer, that flip-flops are called thongs in Australia! I wonder why that is? It gets more and more difficult to be an EFL teacher… and confusing for EFL learners!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think it is a cunning plan on the part of the British to try and confuse the rest of the world. We have a language which has no regular verbs, which accepts words from any other language, which has numerous words whose meaning can only be worked out from their context. The spelling is completely non-phonetic, and completely illogical.
      And this is the language which half the world speaks ( and the other half tries to speak).

      Liked by 3 people

      • That’s what I tell my students. The objective of English grammar and pronunciation is to confuse the EFL learners😂😂😂
        Then I remind them it’s lucky for all of us that Chinese isn’t the language learnt at schools…. at least not yet!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. My brother the lingerie expert. I’m impressed and this is a great series. Good to have you back in the blog sphere

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on TanGental and commented:
    My big brother is writing about pants. Or his writing is pants. I’m not yet sure. Maybe you have an idea

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You have my mind spinning now! Out west in the US, we wear jeans and beneath, the ladies wear panties and men tighty-whities or briefs. Going commando is the naked underneath option. I find it funny that proper Victorian girls were once going commando beneath fancy dresses. And to Luccia’s observation on flip-flops — generations get confused in the US at the beach because Granny wears thongs on her feet and all the young ladies wear thongs as bikini bottoms. How did that happen? Welcome back to the blogosphere!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always think of a thong as a thin strip of leather to be used as a very strong piece of string, so I tend to have to think quickly when coming across the word. Incidentally the version worn on the feet is a shortened version of Thong Sandals, sandals tied with a thong rather than buckled. As for the bikini bottoms, all I can say is that the oldest surviving version of the garment, from Roman London, was tied at the side with leather thongs.
      This was certainly worn by a slim woman, probably when exercising. No similar garment was worn as underwear by British women until the nineteenth century.

      Liked by 1 person

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