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The Word

If the pants fit

Some things still don’t translate across the pond

(Gus Wezerek/Globe Staff)
By Jan Freeman
July 17, 2011

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In 1875, the English novelist Samuel Butler wrote a poem called “Psalm of Montreal” that includes this comic rebuke to a Canadian taxidermist: “Thou callest trousers ‘pants,’ whereas I call them ‘trousers,’/ Therefore thou art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!”

Today we’ve toned down the hyperbole a bit, but British and American speakers still enjoy grousing about each other’s odd language - especially when it threatens to infect the homeland’s idiom. In England, they complain about cookies supplanting biscuits and visitors who ask, “Can I get a coffee?” instead of “May I have . . . ?” In the United States, we whine over went missing and gobsmacked. Ben Yagoda, who teaches journalism at the University of Delaware, even has a website tracking the course of British lexical imports; readers are invited to vote on the acceptability of posh, wanker, whilst, and the like.

But these words, at least, we can recognize as “foreign.” The real problem arises when the same word has different meanings in different countries. Our chips are crunchy; their chips are French fries. Their garden encompasses the lawn, not just the flowers and vegetables. Our corn is their wheat: Stockings “the colour of very ripe corn” are not yellow or green, but orangey.

And then there are pants. Everywhere, these days, there are pants. Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, Captain Underpants, “Pants on the Ground.” A few months ago, the blog Language Log looked into the proliferation of pants in our time - mentioning sexypants, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” SpongeBob SquarePants, big girl (and big boy) pants, and their possible relationship to appellations like bossy-boots, sweetie-pie, and wise-ass.

But which pants are we talking about? In England, pants are usually underpants, male or female. The basic word for the long-legged garment is trousers (although pants may appear in compounds - ski pants, harem pants). In “The Pregnant Widow,” set in 1970, novelist Martin Amis has his young protagonist marveling that his girlfriend has switched to wearing “cool pants,” and he doesn’t mean bell-bottoms: He means underpants that are feminine and sexy rather than sensible “granny pants.” “The cool thing about cool pants is you know they’re coming off,” he says. “They put your mind at rest.”

In American English, though, pants can be pretty much any two-legged garment worn below the waist: jeans, khakis, cropped pants, shorts, and even, sometimes, underpants. Given the divergence, how can our two nations hope to understand each other’s fiction, journalism, jokes? Clearly we need a pants treaty with Britain.

If we’d listened to Oliver Wendell Holmes, we wouldn’t have ended up in this pants perplex. Holmes was only one of earliest language watchers to denounce the American adoption of pants in everyday language. It was, he wrote in 1846, “a word not made for gentlemen, but gents” - gents being an equally despised casualism of the time. A shortening of pantaloons, pants had come into fashion in the early 1800s, as men abandoned their knee breeches for long trousers; the earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1835, comes from an essay in the Southern Literary Messenger: “In walked my friend - pumps and tight pants on - white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

For the next 80 years or more, pants was anathema to American usage writers. The word “will do well enough for signs, and among the uneducated,” wrote Richard Meade Bache in 1869, “but, in the conversation or in the writing of the educated and refined, the word should be eschewed.” It “is not only an error, but it is a positive vulgarism,” said Emma Churchman Hewitt in 1907. “Vulgar exceedingly” declared Ambrose Bierce in 1909. Despite the universal scorn, pants eventually prevailed. But what if it hadn’t?

If the anti-pants brigade had held the fort, Americans might have delayed their embrace of the word. If we’d followed the lead of the British - who adopted it only late in the 19th century, and still labeled it “colloquial and shoppy” in the 1904 edition of the OED - our pants might also mean “underpants.” And that would make life simpler: If pants were always underwear, we could dispense with the unlovable undies and panties, not to mention boxers, briefs, Jockeys, and tighty-whities. Over them we could wear trousers and slacks and jeans, cutoffs and capris, and (if you insist) jeggings. Our lexicon would be neater, our prose more transparent.

But neatness doesn’t count for much in matters of language. Instead of sorting out our usage along British lines, we’ll probably complicate their vocabulary by exporting our ambiguous pants. Lynne Murphy, an American-born linguist who teaches in England, doesn’t think the tipping point has arrived for pants: It’s still “a very American usage here,” she says. But when it does happen, at least we’ll all be equally confused; when we call somebody a smartypants, nobody will know which kind of pants we mean.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this Word column reversed the difference between the British and American uses of the word “corn.” In Britain, it means wheat or grain.