It’s pants!

I never really thought about the word ‘pants’ – pants were underwear, short for underpants, knickers, which made reading American stories so funny when I was young and the boys and men would be wearing pants! These days people over here use ‘pants’ to mean trousers as well, so we are quite used to it. We also use it with other words, hot pants, sweatpants, pantsuit and so on.

‘Pants’, I guess is short for pantaloons (another funny word for those of us who find words funny!) and when I check to see, yes pantaloons it is. Pantaloons were fashionable in mid seventeenth century France but they were skin-tight trousers, rather like drain-pipe trousers. They had originated from Italian comedy and the character of old man Pantaloun, who had skinny legs emphasised by his costume. Just by the by, Pantaloun came from  Saint Pantaleone, Christian martyr associated with Venice. The fashion and the word crossed the channel to England and for a long time did mean tight trousers, so when did it come to mean baggy trousers, or even underwear?

Pants as opposed to pantaloons arrived in the language in the 1840’s, and could also be used in the singular, which would sound strange to we English speakers but perfectly sensible to anyone learning the language! ‘Pants’ has now come to mean something which is useless, rubbish or no good, and yet ‘to wear the pants’ means to be in charge in a relationship or household. A more recent phrase – more recent as being twentieth century, phrase is ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ or just ‘by the seat of your pants’, which entered the language during the war, probably around the early 1940’s from airmen slang – a pilot could apparently detect the stat of the engine and aircraft by the vibrations in his seat.

The verb pant and panting has nothing to do with pantaloons or Saint Pantaleone; it comes from Latin via French and means what ‘pant’ now mean, puff, gasp,, struggle for breath. and has more to do with the words phantasm and phantasma.

This train of thought was set off by a couple of lines in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy. It’s the very dramatic scene during a terrible storm, where Bathsheba’s husband and all the farm hands are sound asleep drunk, a storm is coming and only the trusty and true Gabriel Oak is at hand to try and tie down the hay stacks. Bathsheba comes out to help him:

The lightning had struck the tree. A sulphurous smell filled the air; then all was silent, and black as a cave in Hinnom.
“We had a narrow escape!” said Gabriel, hurriedly. “You had better go down.”
Bathsheba said nothing; but he could distinctly hear her rhythmical pants, and the recurrent rustle of the sheaf beside her in response to her frightened pulsations.

When I was in my first year of college, we were reduced to hapless giggles by a poem, and I can’t now remember which of the nineteenth century greats wrote it,

her breath in thick hot pants came…’

..and then there is what we had to wear for school P.E., definitely thick, hot pants:.. and here is a picture of an anniversary cake:



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