One Pant, Two Pants?
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.
Browse all articles on the Vocabulary category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!