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A pair of pants

Posted by Smokey Stover on January 10, 2009 at 04:44

In Reply to: A pair of pants posted by David FG on January 09, 2009 at 20:44:

: : : What is the origin of the phrase 'a pair of pants'?
: : : We have a pair of shoes (two separate objects), but we do not have a pair of shirts?

: : You are far from the first to wonder about this, and the answer (to me) is fairly interesting. I'll give a shortened version. It may not seem short, but this is a topic which gets more interesting the more it's researched.

: : The shortest answer is that "pant" refers to a trouser leg, or pantleg, and since they alwa;ys come in twos, the usual word is pants. One historical change is that some garments that started out with long pantlegs have had them shortened in increments in successive periods. Thus, at one time (18th-early 19th cent.) some women wore an undergarment with long, loose pantlegs under their long skirts. These were called pantaloons. As skirts got shorter, so did the garments underneath. In the 1930s women wore an undergarment with loose pantlegs gathered at the knee, somewhat resembling the general character of men's knickerbockers, which English ladies naturally called knickers. American women called them "Bloomers," after Amelia Bloomer who promoted the garment, although she didn't invent it. And they soon started getting shorter, too, so that what was left was so abbreviated that the pantlegs were only nominal, and the garment was given a name indicating the abbreviation, "panties," almost always used int he plural except in the garment trade. And you know the rest. When the garment lost the pantlegs altogether it continued to be called "panties," and when syntactic agreement was required, the plural continued to be used. "I keep my panhes in a separate drawer, where I'll alwalys know where [bold]they[/bold] are."

: : Men's pants usually still have pantlegs. A bathing suit for men is not called "pants," but rather a bathing suit. Sometimes, in the garment called "shorts," the pantlegs have become so short as to be almost imaginary, but that's not usually the case. In men's underwear the type called boxer shorts has definite pantlegs. The type sometimes called "briefs" used, sometimes to be called "BVDs," after a popular brand. These garments continue to be, grammatically, plural.

: : The word pants has a long history. It came to the English from the French, who had adopted some of the characters of the Italian [i]commedia dell'arte[/i] (16th-18th c.}, including one called "Pantalon." He was called, in Italian, Pantaleone, and was a kind of old fool, speaking Venetian dialect and wearing a grament with long trouser-legs. Such a name for one representing a typical Venetian was natural, since Pantalone or Pantaleone had become a common Venetian surname, probably because San Pantaleone was the patron saint of Venice (at least from the 10th century).

: : There may be errors in this account, and I wish you pleasure in finding them in your research. In brief, however, pants are plural because the garment gets its name from the pantlegs, which come in pairs for obvious reasons. (As I mentioned, the garment trade often uses the word "pant" in the singular for the whole garment.)
: : SS

: Ok, so why do we say 'a pair of scissors/tongs/pliers/forceps'?

: I can see that there are clearly two bits to these things, but they are never separate. Indeed, one half of a pair of scissors (or whatever) would be completely useless.


David, is this a rhetorical question, or would you like some information? I'm sure you know that our almost-common language is full of anomalies, but let me pick apart, just a bit, your list.

Scissors is borrowed from the French, if borrowed is the right word for a language which was the official language of the realm when scissors got into it. It has undergone some serious changes, including the spelling, which is based on a misunderstanding of the etymology. Your quire right, one never speaks of "a scissor."

Tongs is a Germanic word, and in t he early history of English one could speak of a tong, or a tang, in the singular, with the same meaning as w e give to the plural form.

Pliers, also used in the plural, is derived from "ply," which, like scissors, entered England--and English--from the French spoken by the Norman cocnquerors. The OED defines them as "Pincers with gripping jaws". Pincers are also used mostly in the plural, as a pair, although there are some exmples of its use as a singular (bit still spelled pincers).

Forceps is a horse of another color. It comes directly from the Latin, in which it is a nominative singular, the plural being forcipes. It is mostly used, correctly, in the singular, although sometimes it is spoken of as a pair of forceps. The OED cites a few examples of the use of "forcipes," of which one is: "pl. 1634 T. JOHNSON Parey's Chirurg. XVII. xiii. 389 Then must the tooth be taken hold of with some of these toothed forcipes." This word is used (incorrectly) in the same way that scissors, pincers or pliers are used, that is as a plural noun, signifying a pair, although the example given does not make that clear. (T. Johnson's statement is unclear in another respect: how many forceps does he use at the same time to apply to the tooth? He sounds like some dentists that I have had.)

I have to remind David that these devices (leaving out forceps) are not always preceded by "a pair of." This formula is used only when it's grammatically desirable to treat them specifically as a singular, as when they are being enumerated. or distinguished. An example: "I found scissors in my bed." That's perfectly correct, and explains why it was so hard to sleep. "I found a pair of scissors in my bed." If you found scissors, there could be a whole pile of them. If you only found one pair of scissors, that is, two cutting legs locked together in one device, this explains why you didn't have trouble sleeping until you rolled over.
Emendation: I think the patron saint of Venice was called San Pantalone, or possibly, San Pantalon.
Another emendation: my example did not correctly exemplify the nature of panties in terms of the implied number. Like pants, the plural is used for a single garment--or many. "The boys staged a panty raid in which they copped dozens of panties." This suggest that one pair of panties is a panty, but not so. "She slipped on the ice, revealing that she was not wearing panties." You don't say, "She was not wearing a pair of panties." You just say panties, unless you are defining them numerically. Perhaps the example would be less suggestive if it read, ". . . revealing that she was wearing white panties."