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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.


Been there, gentrified that.

Dear Word Detective: Jade is a stone that is polished and set in a piece of jewelry. How did it turn into “old hat”? — Mike Henderson.

Good question. But is the expression “old hat” meaning “passé, unfashionable, antiquated” even valid any longer, when every trustafarian hipster infesting Brooklyn is sporting a thrift-store vintage fedora or pork-pie hat? As a former long-term resident of the Borough of Kings, I remember the old saying “Only the dead know Brooklyn.” That never seemed more true than late on a Saturday night when the D Train unexpectedly went express and dumped you in the rain out at Flatbush and Fuhgeddaboudit. Now, of course, there’s an app for that. But I can’t help hoping that someday that majestic, unknowable Brooklyn will rise from the deep like Godzilla and swallow up all those Warby Parker-wearing twerps. That would make a totally awesome Instagram.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the green stone known as “jade” and the world-weariness we call being “jaded” are two separate and completely unrelated words.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “jade” the stone is actually two different kinds of stone sometimes traveling under the same name. “Jade” is, to quote the OED, “a silicate of lime and magnesia, a hard, translucent stone, in color light green, bluish, or whitish.” The light green variety of jade is of the color we normally call “jade.” The other sort of “jade” is properly called “jadeite,” and is a silica of sodium and aluminum which closely resembles actual jade (and also goes by the names “oriental jade” and “oceanic jade”).

This “jade” stone takes its name from the Latin “ilia,” which means the flanks or areas of the body near the kidneys; jade was, in fact, once thought to cure kidney problems. “Ilia” passed from Latin through the Spanish “ijada” into French, where the result, “l’ejade,” was mistakenly transformed into “le jade.” Voila, “jade.” Jade is also called “nephrite,” from the Greek “nephros,” kidney.

The world-weary kind of “jade” first appeared in English in the 14th century, most likely derived from the Old Norse “jalda,” meaning “mare.” In English, “jade” originally meant a work horse, especially an old, worn out mare. Inevitably, “jade” was eventually extended to people, particularly women of low social status, especially prostitutes (“A lying, prying, jilting, thievish jade.” 1812). The verb “to jade,” appearing in the early 17th century, originally meant to wear out a horse through hard work, but by the late 18th century it, too, was applied to people and the intransitive form came to mean “to become tired, exhausted, dull.”

By association with the use of the noun “jade” to mean “prostitute, underworld denizen,” the modern “jaded” implies that one has seen so many amazing, outrageous or scandalous things that one is no longer capable of taking either offense or excitement from the proceedings (“Call me jaded, but in a year that brings Oblivion, After Earth, World War Z, Pacific Rim, The World’s End and Smurfs 2, not just any old apocalypse will do.” National Post, 2013).


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.