One Pant, Two Pants?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader disapproves of the use of singular pant when talking about the garment that covers the legs:

When did “pant” become an acceptable reference for the two-legged apparel people wear?  I started seeing this in the late 80s or early 90s on the signs of some “fashionable” clothing stores, and its use has persisted.  The last straw was when I recently saw a reference about “pant size” in a newspaper cartoon.

Alas, dear reader, according to the OED, pant to describe the entire garment was “rather a new word” in 1893.

Our word pants is itself a shortening of the word pantaloons.

The word pantaloons entered the language in the 17th century as a term of ridicule for long pants. At the time, fashionable Englishmen were still wearing knee-breeches. (They were still wearing them in 1776; think U.S. Founding Fathers.)

The word pantaloons is an eponym. Pantelone (also spelled Pantaloun) was a stock character in the Commedia dell’Arte plays popular in Italy from the late 16th century. By the 17th century his name was proverbial for an old-fashioned, wealthy, grasping authority figure. His traditional costume included long trousers. When trend-setters from France started wearing their breeches to the ankle, Englishmen ridiculed the new fashion by associating it with the ridiculous character Pantelone.

By 1830, the tide had turned; only old fogies clung to knee-breeches. Pantaloons was no longer a term of ridicule, but the accepted name of the now accepted men’s garment.

By1840 those pesky American clothing salesmen had shortened pantaloons to pants.

When the word pant was documented as being used to refer to the entire garment in 1893, the term pants was still new enough to be recognized as an abbreviation of the older word pantaloons.

Even when the regular word was still pantaloons, singular pant was used to refer to a pantleg. (The OED labels pantleg as “obsolete,” but it’s the word I grew up hearing. Ex. One pantleg is shorter than the other.)

I believe that pant to stand for the entire garment must have come into its own with the introduction of pantsuits for women in the 1960s and 1970s. At first this liberating fashion innovation was written pants suit, but it was inevitable that the double s of pants suit would devolve into one-s pantsuit. Then, as happens with compound words, the first element came to be seen as detachable, giving us “pant” as a word that can describe a garment having two legs.

As early as 1962 the L.L. Bean catalogue could list “a practical and well made pant for general sportswear.”

I don’t expect the plural pants to disappear from long-established idioms like “to wear the pants in the family,” or “to be caught with one’s pants down,” but I don’t see retailers (or cartoonists) abandoning the convenience of writing “pant size” for “pants size” or “pants’ size.”

If it’s any consolation, not every American approved of shortening pantaloons to pants in the first place:

The thing named ‘pants’ in certain documents,
A word not made for gentlemen, but ‘gents’.
–American jurist/poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rhymed Lesson, 1846.

Trumbull’s Signing of the Declaration of Independence

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18 Responses to “One Pant, Two Pants?”

  • Cecily

    Given that “mathematics” is abbreviated to “math” in AmE, abbreviating “pantaloons” to “pant” perhaps has precedent (which is not to gainsay your pants suit theory).

    It’s very different for Brits: we get our knickers in a twist over “pants” being used for “trousers” and we always keep an “s” at the end of “maths”. 😉

  • Laura S.

    This post made me wonder:

    Where does “pantaloons” as a woman’s undergarment come from, then–especially since they more closely resemble knee-breeches than ankle-length pants? And also, any reason why they’re still referred to as pantaloons?

  • Kathleen

    I had not thought about this; my usage varies according to context. In the course of work, I use pant to refer to the entire garment in the same way I’d describe ‘a dress’. When speaking with laymen, I will say “pants” but preceded by “a pair of”. The only other way I use ‘pants’ is to indicate pant-plural in the same way I’d say dresses.

    I think your reader’s more legitimate beef could be panty vs panties. Panty is singular, panties plural but many confuse the two.

  • Maeve

    Laura S.,
    The use of the word “pantaloons” to refer to women’s underwear is a new one on me. I think this may be an instance of someone’s error gaining currency.

    I’ve clicked on several sites that advertise “ladies’ pantaloons.” The garments in the illustrations are what Victorian ladies called “pantalettes”:

    Long, loose pants with a frill or ruffle at the bottom of each leg, showing beneath a skirt and worn by young girls in the early to mid 19th cent.; (later also) trousers or knickerbockers worn by women under skirts, esp. for active pursuits such as cycling.Now chiefly historical. –OED

  • Peter

    I think your reader’s more legitimate beef could be panty vs panties. Panty is singular, panties plural but many confuse the two.

    There’s no confusion: “panty” is singular in the same way “pant” is singular—part of a thing that can only exist as a pair. The singular forms are only used in compound formations (pantsuit, pantyhose, etc.), by other-than-Americans…do you have “a scissor”, too?

  • Kathryn

    I’m sorry, Maeve. So sorry. I did try to resist, but the compulsion. . .it was just too great for me.

    Red pant, blue pant.

    Thank you. I feel much better now.

  • Sophie

    Disclaimer: I am not a native english speaker. I went to french school during my “formative” years (5-18). I do, however, speak english like a native. To confuse matters further, I lived in canada (montreal) for 13 years, and have now been living in the UK for nearly 5 years.

    To me, “pant” seems to be the base of the thing, without the legs… rather like underwear. Until moving to the UK I said “pants” and meant “trousers”. Now if I said it, it’d mean “crazy”. 🙂

  • Brian Wasko

    I have a lot to say, but I have to get on my slack.

  • Laura S.

    Sounds like this has more than a few people confused, as Googling “pantaloons” brings up tons of images of pantalettes–a word, I must confess, I have not seen before.

    Thanks for the clarification!

  • thebluebird11

    1. I have definitely heard of “pantaloons” used to refer to women’s undergarments. I never heard of “pantalettes,” but I like the word.
    2. @Peter: I was thinking the same thing about “scissor.” People say it all the time, but my mother was adamant: It’s a pair of scissors, and even if you leave off “a pair of,” it’s still “Please give me the scissors.” Notwithstanding Edward Scissorhands.
    3. I am sticking with “pants” when referring to a garment that starts at about the waist, reaches the ankles and has separate sections in which to insert the legs. “Pant” is what dogs do. When combined with another word (pantsuit), I’m fine with skipping the double-s construction. I’m also fine with skipping the preceding “a pair of” when referring to them. “I need to go buy pants for work.” Could be one, could be five.
    4. As with scissors and pants, likewise for panties. You can still have a pair of panties (which is really ONE garment, with two openings for the legs). However, I’m fine with saying “I need to buy panties” (could be one, could be five, if VS is having a good sale). Nobody buys “a panty”! However, when combined with another word (pantyhose), that’s a better construction than pantieshose, which looks ridiculous and difficult to pronounce (panty-shows?). Maybe, these days. Unless you wear thongs LOL.

  • Jo

    Ah, I’m glad to be British on this one. Those long legged garments are called ‘trousers’. Pants are underwear. 🙂

  • Maeve

    I love the discussion this post has provoked!

  • Cecily

    You never call anyone “smartypant” do you?

    Here’s an interesting article about smartypants, fancypants and similar: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3065

    There is also a recent BrE slang coinage of “pants” to mean “not very good” or worse. For example, “The new ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film is pants”.

  • Elizabeth Warnimont

    Just some additional thoughts on pant and pants. I’m going to wear pants today. Put on some pants. I need a pair of pants. Look at that guy in the plaid pants. All seem perfectly correct and current to me. Without the s, to me, is the exception and maybe most common within the fashion industry. Pant suit, a pant with pleats, a tan pant to go with this, all strike me as industry terms. Thanks for the post – I never would have thought about it otherwise.

  • Peter Stockwell

    I suspect we have to thank Australians for shortening University to Uni. They seldom use two syllables when one will do. There will be a time when their language has vanished altogether.

  • Bill

    Actually Peter, we Aussies tend to speak in sets of two Syllables. For example; A garbage collector becomes a “Garbo”, a man named Robert becomes “Robbo”, a politician is a “pollie”, etc.
    Luckily for us, however, our language is English, and for the moment English is currently the lingua Franca. Our dialect differs, certainly, but I highly doubt with the current state of language blending that occurs (such as English and Australian folks asking to use the bathroom instead of the lavatory) that any language would manage to shorten itself out of existence.

    Sorry for my rant, but I studied a little History of Linguistics at “Uni” 😉

  • Elizabeth Kelly

    If a pant should be in the plural pants, why isn’t a jumper – jumpers for one garment. Or bras instead of bra? Why are trousers plural anyway? After all, we have two arms as well as two legs – normally.

    (I loved Brian Wasko’s comment!)

  • Willy Roentgen

    For (men’s wear) don’t we refer to them as a “pair of pants” for the lower half cover of one person? So why is this in the plural form?

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