I got the following email from Margie Wilson from South Africa:
Having watched some TV programmes on fashion from Canada and America recently, the use of the word 'pant' came up a few times. Now I am not talking about the effect of heavy breathing, but of an item of apparel. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as PANTS taken from the word pantaloons and the word Trousers (also with an s), the reasoning here being that there are two trouser legs making a pair of trousers or two pant legs making a pair of pants - one can't have this in the singular unless you are the proverbial one legged man or woman. My question is therefore, why is 'pant' (singular) used by American and Canadians? The dictionary definition is very precise in this regard. I find it quite fascinating how the language that we speak has so many variations from country to country.
Thank you for your interesting articles which continue to pop up in my mail box. Rest assured that they are enjoyed and have been of great interest.
It’s true, I did have to relearn the term pants when we moved to North America. But there are so many terms that are interchanged: e.g. I used to use the word pavement for footpath, but here, the pavement is the road, and footpath is sidewalk).
With regards to finding a suitable explanation for the term pants, this is what I got from the BBC website:
In America, a 'pair of pants' refers to an item of clothing used to cover the entire lower torso and pelvic region of the body, but often also includes clothing that covers from the hip right down to the ankle. If the article of clothing doesn't cover the knees and below, it is usually referred to as 'shorts' or something, even though it's really still a pair of pants.
In England, a 'pair of pants' refers to an item of clothing used to cover the main areas of the lower region of the body (from hip down to just below the groin). Pants are usually covered (at least in public) with another article of clothing called 'trousers'. Trousers cover the body from below the torso to above the feet, and Americans call trousers pants.
What Americans refer to as 'shorts' or 'underwear' is actually a pair of pants to the British. Americans are much less specific in the definition than the British. In America, trousers are called pants and pants are called shorts or underpants. In Great Britain, underpants are called pants and pants are called trousers. British speaking people generally find this more amusing than American speaking people, who oftentimes don't understand why the Brits are laughing at them.
Pants is generally used as a plural word. It’s actually only in North American fashion catalogues that you’ll see it being used in a single form: Pant (as does the word, tight). Does that answer you question Margie?
For the insanely curious, the ones who ask how the word pants came about, its origin is rather interesting. It can be traced back to Pantaleon, the 4th Century Roman Catholic patron saint of Venice. He was so revered by the Venetians, that they actually began to be referred to as Pantaloni. Fast forward a couple of centuries and a Venetian character in Italian commedia dell’arte who was the butt of the clown’s jokes and who always appeared wearing pantaloons was called Pantalone. The abbreviation of Pantaloons of course is, Pants.
And why are pants generally used in the plural?
Words for garments below the waist (and with two parts or ‘legs’ all seem to be used in plural throughout history: A pair of breeches, panties, tights, trousers, and of course, pants. By strange contrast, those used items of clothing above the waist are singular: bra, signet, vest etc.
So, thanks for the question Margie. I sure learnt something new today!