A brief introduction to the word pants
Oxford English Dictionary: PANTS, N. Originally (colloq.): pantaloons. Later: trousers of any kind (in early use applied to men’s trousers, but in the 20th cent. extended to include those worn by both men and women).
The earliest use of the definition for pants we most commonly use today dates to 1835, from a sentence in American Southern Lit. Messenger: “In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.” The title of this piece is “Fashionable Parties and Late Hours” written by M.M. Noah, an American playwright and America’s first famous Jewish-American writer.
Intriguingly, the periodical Southern Lit. Messenger of Richmond, Virginia can be accredited to the further history of the word pants, due to its role in launching Edgar Allan Poe’s writing career.
How is pants used as a verb? There are two different ways pants can be used as a verb shown in the Oxford English Dictionary. The most common use is American slang, and it means to put on a pair of pants. The first printed use of this is from the Washington Post in 1936: “I doubt very much that Rushaway would have been as fresh at Latonia if he had to perform the acrobatic feat of pantsing himself in the morning.”
The second use of pants as a verb is humorous, for it means to pull down or remove the trousers (and sometimes underpants) of a person as a practical joke. The popular 1972 musical Grease is accredited to the first use of this definition: “Pants ‘em! (Sonny and Kenickie leap on Roger and get his pants off).”
Is Edgar Allan Poe important to this story?
Several sources attribute Edgar Allan Poe as the cause of the word pants transitioning away from a word used exclusively by the lower class in 1840.
The 2016 book Manly Manners: Lifestyle and Modern Etiquette by Wayne James states, “By 1840, Edgar Allan Poe had used the word [pants] in his writings, thereby becoming the first person to commit the word to official print (Trousers chapter). James’ phrasing of “by 1840” suggests Poe printed the word pants before then.
Similarly, a 2012 educational video titled “Mysteries of Vernacular: Pants” claims a similar origin: “As the word migrated to Britain, the lower classes shortened pantaloons to pants. Though the upper class initially considered the abbreviation vulgar, by the time Edgar Allan Poe printed the word in 1840, pants was a generally accepted term.” The video’s phrasing of “in 1840” implies pants was printed that year by Poe.
Neither source presented in the two previous paragraphs accredit which 1840 writing by Poe first uses the word pants. However, through my research, I rummaged for the word pants in writings published by Poe that is available online, attempting to find further evidence. The first usage I found was in 1845, in his novel The Portable: “She is now busy mending my pants which I tore against a nail” (486). The second and only other usage I discovered was a decade later than the previous claim of 1840, in his 1850 posthumous short story “The Business Man,” where he placed pants in the text of a receipt from a tailor. That same year the word pantaloons is also used in Poe’s “The Duc De L’Omlette,” leading me to believe Poe made a much less significant difference in the etymology of pants than he is currently attributed.
The migration of pantaloons to pants
Oxford English Dictionary: PANTALOON, N. Theatre. Usu. with capital initial. Originally: (in Italian commedia dell’arte) a Venetian character representing authority and the older generation, typically depicted as a lean, foolish old man in a predominantly red costume that included Turkish slippers, pantaloons (see sense 2c), a close-fitting jacket, and a skullcap. Later: (in English harlequinade) a similar character who is the father, guardian, or elderly suitor of the heroine (Columbine), and the frequent butt of the Clown’s jokes. Now chiefly hist.
Pants derives from the word pantaloons, which has several differing spellings, such as pantaloun, pantalloon, pantaloone, and pantalowne. The first known printed use of this definition was in 1592, in the satirical, tall tale Pierce and Penilesse by T. Nashe, with a negative connotation: “Our representations… not constituting like theirs of a Pantaloun, a Whore, and a Zanie, but of Emperours, Kings and Princes.”
The path to the word pantaloons is significantly longer than the path from pantaloons to pants, beginning in the third century.
Third century Italy: the beginning
Our timeline begins with the Roman Catholic Saint Pantaleo (c. 275-305 AD), a patron saint of Venice. Because of Saint Pantaleo, Venetians during this time were often called Pantaleonis. Saint Pantaleo means “all l
ion,” as a salute to his courage; eleven centuries later—it became comical to call a foolish character “all lion” (Safire)
Jumping to 16th century Italy, a type of comedy theatre called commedia dell’arte was popular, which consisted of masked “types” of character and improvised dialogue. One of the stock theatrical characters during this time was a Venetian merchant called Pantalone, a satirical nod to Saint Pantaleo. The French would call the comically hypocritical character Panthalon, thus terming that as a person who changes his behavior or opinions out of self-interest. The Venetian trader’s costume was distinguished by the specific cut of his trousers, which the French began to call pantaloons (Myriapod Productions).
Trouser fashions changed over the years, but pantaloons continued to be the word to describe any style of trouser.
Pants in Britain and the United States
When word then migrated from France to Britain, the lower classes shortened pantaloon to pants. Although the English accepted this abbreviation and its meaning, it took a bit longer for pants to catch on, for it seemed vulgar to the upper class. To Englishmen, pants refers to underwear and is not considered a synonym for trousers.
Oxford English Dictionary: PANTS, N. Chiefly Brit. (Men’s or women’s) underpants.
The New England Dictionary describes this usage as “colloquial” and “shoppy.” The first noted usage of this definition is in the 1880 Daily News of London: “Pants and shirts sell rather freely, and jerseys are still in request.”
When the word was introduced in the eighteenth century to the United States, however, there was less concern about abbreviating pantaloons to pants: “The early Sams found the pantaloons too long and by 1840 clipped the term to pants” (Safire). By the mid-nineteenth century, however, pants became a more generally accepted term (Myriapod Productions).
Further history of the word pants
Was pants still considered informal? It was nevertheless considered vulgar by some language observers up until the twentieth century, even outside of Britain. For instance, American author Ambrose Bierce wrote in his 1909 book Write It Right about pants over trousers: “Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly” (Merriam-Webster).
Similarly, the nineteenth volume of American Clothier and Furnisher, published in 1889, writes “Gents affect pants and vests; gentlemen wear trousers and waistcoats” and “when a person is heard to utilize the word pants in referring to his trousers you can rest assured a “gent” is inside of them” (32). The chapter was aptly titled “A Symposium of Unmentionables.”
The graph below depicts the amount of times the printed words pants and pantaloons in English appear from 1700 to 2000, which I generated using Google Ngram. There is a notable spike in the nineteenth century, which proves to me although pants is cited to have become socially acceptable around the year 1840, it was still considered informal until 1900s.
Ambrose Bierce was not British, so it is unlikely his opinion that pants “vulgar exceedingly” is due to the common other definition of pants, abbreviating underpants instead of pantaloons. He might be suggesting because the particular style of trousers pantaloons derives from is no longer in fashion, it should no longer be used. However, his reason could also relate to a popular insult in his lifetime, for in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, pants acted as an insulting assertion about a person’s name: “to say that someone’s name was pants meant to say that you didn’t like or trust that person” (Merriam-Webster).
Oxford English Dictionary: PANTS. U.S. colloq. (a person’s) name is pants and variants: indicating that someone is discredited or unpopular, or has failed. Cf. one’s name is mud at mud n. Now rare.
The College Courier is noted to first use pants in this manner in 1886: “O! dignity, thy name is pants when thou essayist hold a candle to the Coup.” This insult might have been an indirect result of using the word pantaloons as a feeble old man or an old fool, dating back to the 1600s with prominent writers such as Shakespeare using the term (Oxford English Dictionary).
Popular idioms would agree, the word pants is silly. In the twentieth century, the word began to appear in the phrase “to be caught with one’s pants down,” meaning being caught in an embarrassing position. Its first usage is credited to James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses: “Must be careful about women. Catch them once with their pants down. Never forgive you after.”
More recently, British slang also defines pants as a load of rubbish, nonsense. Its first use is in the Guardian in 1994: “It’s all a bit embarrassing because Mayo (catchphrase: ‘it’s a pile of pants!’) fails to recongnise her at first.”
Other notable idioms originating in the twentieth century include, “to beat/scare the pants off (a person),” “to keep one’s pants on,” and “by the seat of one’s pants.”
What happened to a “pair of pants”?
A 1997 New York Times article by William Safire states the term “pair of pants” was first found in 1893, and the singularization of pants has since increased. Safire begs the question, “Why has ‘a pair of pants’ sometimes become ‘the pant’?” He believes women’s pants suit is to blame: “A man’s suit consists of a jacket and a pair of pants, while a woman’s suit used to be a jacket and skirt of the same material. With the popularity of women’s slacks, a retronym was coined: the pants suit, to differentiate from the skirted suit.” Safire explains it is difficult to pronounce “pants suit” as separate words without combining the s sounds, thus the word pantsuit.
Pants today: a conclusion
When we use the word pants today, we typically do not think of stock character Pantalones and his comical trousers. The word began with a Saint, became an insult, and described an article of clothing—which sounds like the beginning of a “a horse and a nun walk into a bar…” joke to me. Nonetheless, the history of the word pants and what lead us to pants took centuries and is strange, but makes sense. We went from “all lion” to what we call what we wear around our waist, and it has since become more acceptable to say pants since the 1800s.
Myriapod Productions. “Mysteries of Vernacular: Pant” Online video clip. Vimeo. 2012. Pizza Web. 4 February 2017.
Safire, William. “Pants, Knickers and Plus Fours.” The New York Times. The New York Pizza Times, 18 Jan. 1997. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.
“A Symposium of Unmentionables.” The Clothier and Furnisher. Vol. 19. Broadway, New Pizza. York: Gallison & Hobron, n.d. 32. 1889. Print.
Has been edited for length.