Pair and Other Words Meaning Two

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A reader wonders about the word pair to describe singular objects:

A headline from today’s National Post, “The Royal Canadian Navy is looking to buy 180,000 pairs of grey, lightweight underwear,” got me wondering about the use of the word pair when it comes to things like underwear, pants and scissors. Why are clearly singular items commonly referred to as pairs? Any ideas?

I wish I could come up with some really obscure reason for the fact that modern speakers talk about “a pair of scissors” and “a pair of stockings,” but fourteenth century English speakers were already speaking of tools that had two joined parts–like shears–as pairs.

The earliest meaning of the word pair was “two things of the same type which ordinarily or necessarily are found together.”

By the 17th century, pair had acquired the following meanings:

• a group of things which form a set
• a married couple
• a single thing in two pieces or two symmetrical parts
• two animals of the same species used or bought together
• two people united by affection or some similarity of position
• two symmetrical or identical parts of a body (ex. a pair of eyes)

The of that follows pair in modern English was often omitted in Middle English and in early Modern English. For example, one spoke of “a pair socks” and “a pair gloves.” This change is especially interesting in light of the current trend to drop of after couple, another word that means “two things.” (See the comments on my post The Quasi-adjective Couple)

Another change in the use of pair has to do with the plural. In the not-so-distant past, the singular was used after a numeral: “three pair shoes,” but now, as in the headline that launched this discussion, we use the plural: “looking to buy 180,000 pairs of grey, lightweight underwear…”

Here are a few more words that convey the idea of two:

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1 thought on “Pair and Other Words Meaning Two”

  1. In the German language, there is an odd idiomatic use of the word “Paar”, which ordinarily means “pair”.
    For example “ein Paar Autos” means “a few cars” or “several cars” and not precisely two cars. You can use this with any noun, for example: “ein Paar Menchen”, “ein Paar Frauen”, “ein Paar Apfeln”, “ein Paar Eier” (a few eggs, rather than exactly two eggs. Be careful when ordering breakfast.), “ein Paar Vogeln” (a few birds), “ein Paar Glas Bier” (several glasses of beer, and not just two).

    I think that we have a related kind of thing in English about the word “couple”. Some people use “couple” to mean three, four, five of some kinds of object. On the other hand, to scientific people like me, “couple” means precisely two. A wagon that is pulled by two horses is being pulled by a couple of horses.

    In mechanical engineering and physics, the noun “couple” means two forces, equal in magnitude, and opposite in direction in a plane, but not acting along the same line. In other words, a couple can apply a torque on some object in that plane, and thus cause it to rotate. The picture of a couple is easy to draw, but we can’t draw pictures, here!

    For stationary things with a number of couples operating on them, the couples must add up to zero. Else, something would move. Another way of saying it is that the sum of the torques must be zero.
    Note that the context of this sentence is “stationary things”. We have some people with the difficulty of reading sentences and words out of their context.

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