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Saturday, 19 December 2009


'Pant,' 'Britches,' and Other 'Thongs'

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
What is it about the American apparel industry and 'we the people' that it caters to that we can't ever seem to get some basic fashion facts straight? Basics as in the terminology for those everyday two-legged garments men and women wear to cover their torsos -- otherwise known as 'trousers' 'pants,' and, less today than in the sleek sixties, as 'slacks.' And how can we forget omni-present 'jeans'?

We might all put one leg in after another like everyone else, but, for many, that's about all we agree on when it comes to the garments that conceal our torso, rear, legs, and, of course, our privates underneath. 

Ever since boys and girls outgrew diapers and got into 'pants,' the American lexicon has grappled with what to actually call those things we graduated into. Plural, singular, who wears what where, spelling, usage are all part of the muddled, troublesome terminological thicket that doesn't seem to go away.

Even a ready reference to those cherished garments in which we shake our booty, strut our stuff, and often conceal our anatomical imperfections has some exceptions.

But, first, think plural. Derived from 'pantaloons,' from way back when, even the abbreviated form 'pants' is always spoken of in the plural. Like 'scissors,' 'pants,' 'trousers,' 'slacks,' and the like are a plurale tantum, a noun that is always in a plural form whether it refers to one or more.

Besides 'pant' sort of has a fey ring to it, not the kind of thing that most men -- including Sponge Bob Squarepants -- really want to be wearing. Though, perhaps, pegged-legged Long John Silver could get away with it.
Similarly, it's'breeches,' as in 'riding breeches,' not 'breech.' And spelling counts. Never, ever 'britches.' No wonder the once popular Washington-based men's haberdasher, 'Britches of Georgetown,' is no more.

Plurale tantum also applies to undergarments: It's 'undershorts,' or more specifically 'boxers' and 'briefs,' for men; 'panties' (small pants') for women. Exceptions: the slang 'undetrou' (men) and the increasingly popular 'thong' (women).('Thongs' would literally mean wearing two or more thongs at one time, probably a more complicated wardrobe function than getting trussed to a chastity belt).

Never mind about 'bloomers' (plural). They went out with the girdle (singular).

Collective nouns for 'underthings' are, of course, singular. It's lingerie' and 'underwear,' for example. 

Who wears what where? Men wear 'pants' in America and 'trousers' in the UK. Men in the UK also wear pants -- but they're underwear. On the other hand, women wear 'knickers' rather than 'panties.' Knickers? In America, they're the trousers that golfers used to wear. Some still do.

'Pants' and 'trousers' also have some putative class distinction. At least, according the late Nancy Mitford, a keen observer of Society's one-upmanship based on lingustic usage. In the UK, she noted in Debrett's U & Non-U Revisted, 'trousers' is considered upper class usage. In America, just the opposite: 'pants' is posh. 

In both countries, thankfully, women wear 'slacks,' 'hot-pants,' 'short-shorts,' 'cut-offs,' 'Capri pants,' 'hip-huggers,' and the latest in two-legged attire, 'skinny jeans.' Never, 'jean.' But you know that.

Whether you're a woman wearing 'low-riders' showing off your a derriere 'coin slot' and a thongy 'whale tail,' or a male sagger wearing baggy jeans displaying colorful undertrou, remember you can always proudly tell the world who's wearing the pants by getting the names right-- even if you call them slacks, trousers, or breeches. Otherwise, you might get tagged as just another pantywaist.