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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.


A room with vroom.

Dear Word Detective:  I teach second grade in Southern California. I have a student that asked me where the word “caboose” came from. I’ve tried to find a source for this, but haven’t been very successful. Can you help me out? I’d sure appreciate it. Anything to spark interest in language! — S.M.

Spark interest in language, eh? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Of course, it’ll be cute at first, little nippers running around, running off at the mouth, saying cute things at breathtakingly inappropriate moments. After all, back in the 50s and 60s, Art Linkletter turned them into tiny cash cows with his “Kids Say the Darndest Things” books and TV shtick. But now the spotty little monsters have smartphones, access to the internet, their own Twitter and Facebook accounts, and apparently tireless thumbs. And if you think literacy is improving the world, I suggest you take a close look at trending topics on Twitter.

“Caboose” is defined by as “a part of a train that is attached at the back end and is used by people who work on the train,” which is like explaining an ocean liner as “a long, pointy thing that floats on the water.” It totally misses what makes a caboose cool. A “caboose” is a little house on wheels that hooks onto the back end of a train. It’s got windows, bunk beds, a galley for cooking and an office for the conductor. Some cabooses (I keep wanting to type “cabeese”) even have a little cupola on top so the conductor can keep an eye on things all the way to the front of the train.

The first “caboose,” however, had no connection to railroads. When the word first appeared in English in the mid-18th century, it meant a small cooking cabin or kitchen on the deck of a merchant sailing vessel. “Caboose” was also used to mean the cast iron cooking stove inside the cabin. The word “caboose” comes from the Dutch “kabuis” (or Low German “kabuse”) meaning “cabin on a ship’s deck.” The use of “caboose” to mean a crew car on a railway train arose in the mid-19th century. That was the beginning of the heyday of long-distance rail transport in the US, so it made sense to have eating and sleeping facilities on freight trains that often didn’t stop for hundreds of miles.

Cabooses seem neat today, and they were definitely a good idea in the 19th century, but train crews were apparently less than thrilled with the conditions in some cabooses, and slang terms such as ” the crummy,” “the hack,” “the doghouse,” “the bone-breaker,” “the clown wagon” and, ominously, “the hearse” were common.

According to what I’ve read online, “cabooses” are, sadly, going the way of the dodo, made unnecessary by technology and shorter rail runs. But I live about a mile north of a rail crossing with fair amount of train traffic, and I’m still seeing cabooses. Granted, that’s on moonlit nights and the trains make no noise as they pass, but I think it counts anyway.


A little dab will do ya.

Dear Word Detective:  I think that the word “eke” is one of the strangest words in the English language. The meaning even seems a little nebulous. What is the history on this word? — Doris Render.

“Eke” is indeed a somewhat nebulous word. One might even say “eke” is oblique by design, because you can’t be sure what is meant by someone using it. If an old friend, encountered on the street after many years, says that he “manages to eke out a living,” he could be saying he squeaks by with odd jobs, perhaps tutoring the dim spawn of investment bankers. (I know people who have done this, and it isn’t pretty.) But he also might be an investment banker himself with a nine-figure income and a warped sense of humor.

In modern usage, “eke” is almost always found in the verb phrase “to eke out,” meaning “to get by” in a task or to narrowly achieve a goal by means of extra effort, thrift, or initiative. A good 80% of uses of “eke” I found on Google News today, for instance, are in sports stories about teams who managed to “eke out” a victory in the last quarter, inning or whatever.

Although “eke” is found only in its verb form today, it started as a noun. This “eke” meant “an addition, an increase” or “something added on.” The noun “eke” originally appeared in Old English, where it was used to mean reinforcements for troops in the field. The roots of “eke” lie in the Proto-Germanic “aukan,” which also eventually gave us the English “augment.”

“Eke” as a verb originally meant literally “to increase, to lengthen,” a sense which lives on in the use of “eke” or “eke out” to mean “to pad a speech or piece of writing in order to fill up time or meet a quota of words,” a device familiar to any student assigned a term paper (“To eke out any thing, signifies to lengthen it beyond its just dimensions by some low artifice.” Samuel Johnson, 1747).

Outside of the Sports pages or election returns, most of us probably rarely encounter “eke,” but nearly anyone who speaks English is familiar with a descendant of “eke,” albeit one disguised a bit by its own history.

A “nickname” is an “additional” name given to (or adopted by) a person. It may be a familiar form of their proper name (e.g., Chuck for Charles, Bill for William, etc.) or may be drawn from an avocation, hobby or distinguishing act or characteristic of the person. Nicknames exist in most human cultures, and in English they came to be known, in the 13th century, as “eke-names” or “ekenames,” names which were “added” to one’s existing name. Thus one would refer to one’s friend by an “ekename” such as “Moose” or “Binky.” Over the centuries, however, the “n” from “an” drifted over to the front of “ekename,” giving us “a nekename,” and eventually “a nickname.” This common linguistic process, called “metanalysis,” also transformed “a napron” (from the Old French “naperon,” tablecloth) into “an apron” during the same period.