Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Why Brits Should Stop Giving Americans a Hard Time About Saying "Pants"

After reading the recent Buzzfeed article 21 Things British People Hate About Americans, I learned two very important lessons: 1) on Buzzfeed, twenty-one reactionary Twitter users can represent the whole of Britain, and 2) that twenty-one reactionary Twitter users need to stop giving Americans a hard time when it comes to language.

This is particularly true of entrant number 3, who had the following to say:

Personally, I still hate how @lykhyo thinks punctuation doesn't matter; he or she's wrong. 

But perhaps more egregious is his or her overall message: the assertion that pants is incorrect. Of course, such a naive belief is nothing new. Like most of the examples on Buzzfeed's list, it is one of those usages that certain Brits (not all) feel somehow entitled to challenge, as if they themselves have absolute authority over a language that is ever changing.

In fact, users of our language have been changing pants for centuries (get it?). The word previously took the now largely archaic form pantaloons—an item of clothing initially reminiscent of tights (pantaloons was derived from Pantalone, a principle character in Commedia dell'Arte that wore notably tight leggings).

In the mid-17th-century, pantaloons became fashionable across Europe (particularly in France) and were initially the source of criticism among the English. However, in the 1800s—during the Regency era—the trend caught on in Britain. So, too, did the word pants. Indeed—as you can see from the British-English Ngram belowthe word pants was in greater use in Britain than trousers during (and before) this time.



Also evident from the graph is a sudden increase in the usage of trousers at or around the beginning of the Victorian age, with instances of this word peaking at around the time of World War II.

Funnily enough, an American-English Ngram (pictured below) also showed trousers peaking during this time. Moreover, pants saw a peak of its own during World War II, until a rapid increase in usage set in from the 1970s.

Notice that, prior to the 1830s, the word pants was actually in fairly equal use across both countries, while trousers wasshock horrorin wider use across the United States.


Nowadays, of course, the meaning of pants has diverged. Brits use the word as a shortening of underpantsa word that was itself only first attested from 1911, while Americans have continued the more established trend of applying it to trousers. 

Despite the historical prevalence of pants, my firm view on the matter, as with virtually all US/UK word differences, is that neither term is incorrect, just different. And so, to the likes of @lykhyo I have only this to say: don't get your knickers panties in a twist.

How do you feel about US/UK word differences? Are you bothered by people who have no tolerance for said differences? Let us know in the comments box below.

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia and Smitten by Britain. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

Please follow Laurence by clicking on any of the icons below.


10 comments:

Lisa Dorr-Pozos said...

Bravo, Laurence! I find the differences between American and English delightful (as you know!) I'm fine with either side saying that something in the other's vernacular "sounds wrong" or "sounds funny," but to declare that it IS wrong is too much!

vp said...

Bravo, Laurence!

By the way, there's a wonderful short animation on the word "pants" here: http://www.mysteriesofvernacular.com/pants.html

Marcie Brooks-Smith said...

That is pants! Just kidding.

Pama Bennett said...

I think the differences are fun, and I LOVE many of the British terms which, by the way, are becoming more widely used in America; for instance, it's great fun to say, "Don't get your knickers in a twist" and cause your friends to go into gales of laughter! :D

Kaley said...

I totally agree! Plus, yeah, Buzzfeed is really great with that sort of thing—you know, making one person's view EVERY person's view.

I think the differences are fun too! I love joking with British people about language quirks. We shouldn't all be the same. So boring!

leemikcee said...

As an American, I will say "Don't get your knickers in a twist" when I'm sure the hearer will understand the phrase. A popular, alternative, Americanization of that saying is, "Don't get your panties in a bunch." I like 'em both.

When I think of the word "trousers" I get a mental image of Wallace and Gromit!

Susan Robitaille said...

Great piece. :)

Jeff Frazier said...

In the southern part of the US, we call pants "breeches."

Anonymous said...

Speak for yourself, Jeff. I've lived in Texas my whole life and I still call them pants. :)

As for "Don't get your knickers in a twist", I have a slightly longer version that I use:

"Don't get your knickers in a knot. It doesn't solve anything, AND it makes you walk funny."

Janey 73 said...

I'm British and I say pants to mean trousers. Admittedly l am Northern....
In fact, I never even knew a large majority of British people called their lower under garments pants. Only recently I have found out why the audience laughed so hard at a comedian who said he was standing in only his pants on stage...

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