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Trouser terms

One leg at a time.

Dear Word Detective: Hi. I did a quick search in your archives and saw an explanation of why pants come in pairs, but what I did not see was an explanation of the many different ways we can refer to the garments. To name a few: “pants,” “britches,” “trousers” and “slacks.” It’s nice to have several ways to refer to the same thing, but I guess I’m wondering if they’ve always been the same thing(s). — Danny.

More or less, and then some. I just dipped into the wonderful Oxford Historical Thesaurus, now part of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, and discovered a remarkable list of synonyms for “pants.” Almost all the good ones date to the 19th century, including such humorous creations as “round-the-houses” (rhyming slang for “trousers”), “sit-down-upons,” “reach-me-downs” (referring to trousers bought from a rack, i.e., ready-made, often second-hand), “terminations,” and various slang forms of “trousers” including “strouse” and “trousies.” The bulk of the list, however, is taken up by 19th century euphemisms for “trousers,” including “never-mention-’ems” and “unwhisperables,” both also applied to underwear.

As I explained in the column you saw, “pants” were originally known as “pantaloons,” named for Pantalone, a character in 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte (theatrical comedy), who was usually portrayed as an old man wearing short, baggy pants. The Anglicized form “pantaloon” was also applied to the Pantalone style of trousers, eventually giving us the shortened form “pants.” But “pants” originally differed from today’s trousers in that each leg was a separate garment, donned in succession and then belted together at the waist. Thus it made sense to call this arrangement a “pair” of pants, and the usage stuck long after pants became one unified garment.

“Trouser” first appeared in English in the early 17th century as an extension of the earlier “trouse,” from the Irish “triubhas,” which is said to have been related to “truss” in its original sense of “bundle.” “Trouse” (or “trews”) were close-fitting pants that reached only to mid-thigh and were usually worn with stockings. As in the case of “pants,” “trouse” and the later “trouser” have always been used in plural form. “Trousers” were originally a sort of loose outer garment worn over pants or breeches for warmth or to keep the inner garments clean (e.g., while riding a horse), but the term eventually came to be applied to any kind of full-length pants.

“Britches,” which appeared in the late 19th century, is actually a modified form of “breeches,” which dates back to the Old English “brec,” from Germanic roots, and originally meant “a covering for the trunk and thighs.” The term many have first referred to what we now would call a “breech cloth.” By about the 13th century, “breeches” meant pants that came to just below the knees, but the term gradually became a simple synonym for “pants.” As in the case of “pants” and “trousers,” the initially singular “brec” is now used only in the plural form “breeches.”

And now for a bit of weirdness. By the 16th century, “breech” was also being used to mean the part of the anatomy covered by breeches, particularly the posterior. This usage was then applied to “the hindmost part” of all sorts of things, including firearms and cannons, where the “breech” is at the base of the barrel, and childbirth, where a “breech birth” occurs when the baby’s legs emerge before its head.

“Slacks,” meaning “loose-fitting trousers,” dates back to the early 19th century and comes from “slack” in the sense of “part of a rope or sail hanging loose” (also used in such phrases as “take up the slack” and “cut me some slack”). Today “slacks” is usually used to mean loose, casual trousers not worn as part of a suit.

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