I was back tutoring young Marcus Brattle again after the Christmas break, planted in the dining room in his house. As usual, he was trying to distract from studying. His sally this time was “Get anything nice for Christmas?”
“Some nice pants,” I said, and stood up to show him.
He recoiled. “Spare me!”
Ah, yes. Young Marcus and his family moved to Canada from England only a couple of years ago. “I mean what you’d call trousers,” I said. “Not what we’d call underpants.”
Marcus let out a little noise of relief. “Funny word, pants,” he said.
I sat back down. “Because you use it to refer to an undergarment when in fact it was originally an outer garment, pantaloons, named after a character from Commedia dell’Arte who wore them?”
“No,” he said. “Like I’d know that.”
“You do now,” I said. “It is funny, though, as many people have remarked, that not only pants but trousers, slacks, shorts, skivvies, gotchies, et cetera, including derivative words such as shorts, undies, panties, and briefs, are all plural, while shirt, jacket, and so on are singular.”
“I would have thought you’d know why that is,” Marcus said.
“I do know,” I said. “The two legs used to be made and donned as separate parts, just like stockings and hose.”
“Hose is singular,” Marcus observed.
“Go figure,” I said. “Actually, oddly, it’s a mass object.” (“I object to some odd masses I see in pantyhose,” Marcus offered while I continued talking.) “Anyway,” I said, “the plural has by long tradition become attached to anything worn below the waist that has separate legs or at least separate leg holes. Even new products will tend to take that on.”
“Not a thong,” Marcus pointed out.
“Well, thong is actually originally a strap, so in the case of the undergarment it’s referring to the butt floss, which is one thing.” (“Classy,” Marcus interjected at “butt floss.”) “When I was a kid, I used to wear thongs to the beach –”
“Naw! Augh!” Marcus waved his hands as if battling cluster flies. “Stop!”
“– by which we meant sandals with strapping that connected to the sole between the first two toes. The strapping being the thong and, in that case too, transferring the name to the whole object.”
“Well,” said Marcus, “there’s many a man who pants at the sight of a thong. On the right person!”
“The verb pant does happen to be cognate with the noun fantasy,” I noted drily.
“Funny word, pants,” Marcus said (again).
“Because of the plurality and all that.”
“No, because in England it’s an insult. ‘That’s just pants, that is!’”
“But you wouldn’t say ‘That’s just knickers’ or ‘That’s just trousers,’” I said.
“No,” Marcus said. “Except for your trousers, maybe.”
I stood up to display them. “You don’t like them?”
“They’re pants,” he said.
“Obviously,” I said. “Welcome to Canada.”
Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting today’s theme.