pants and trousers; bobbles and pills

I want to write about one thing, and can do so while writing about something someone's asked me to write about, but:
I will not get sidetracked into writing about every kind of clothing.
I will not get sidetracked into writing about every kind of clothing.
I will not get sidetracked into writing about every kind of clothing.
OK, here we go. Kate e-mailed to request some coverage of pants, trousers and slacks. In BrE, pants refers to underpants, which sometimes leads to sub-hilarity when an American says something like I look good in pants. Pants is a generic term—those for women can also be called knickers or panties. Pants has another life as a term of derogatory evaluation. Better Half has obliged us with an example:
Superman Returns was completely pants—and he even wears them on the outside.
(For those interested in Greek terms for odd turns of phrase, that's a zeugma, though some would prefer you to call it a syllepsis.)

The BrE word for the bottom half of a suit is trousers—indeed British women wear trouser suits, while their American counterparts wear pantsuits. Trousers is understood, but not much used, in AmE. I'd certainly never apply the word to womenswear in AmE, but do so easily in my approximation of BrE. In AmE, trousers is an old-fashioned, kind of funny word.

What about slacks? BH and I were just saying the other day that we thought we'd only use slacks as an AmE word for certain types of women's trousers. The very same evening, we were watching an episode from the first (BrE) series/(AmE) season of the very clever BBC comedy The Smoking Room, in which a male character's trousers are referred to as slacks. So it looks like BH and I don't know nuffin. (On the positive side, I can start to cite watching comedy DVDs as an important research activity.) Nevertheless, we both think of slacks as a word that's more at home in our mothers' or grandmothers' vocabularies.

But all of this talk just gets me further from what I wanted to talk about. I mean, we're entering the glorious season of Lynneukah (the festival of Lynne), so I should get the space for my big rant here: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH WOMEN'S TROUSERS/PANTS? I've worn skirts through several years of the low-waisted fashion, because no one makes a woman-shaped trouser anymore. They make trouser legs with something to hold them together. Even the ones that call themselves natural waist (I'm talking to YOU, Boden!) reach nowhere near that narrower part of me between my hips and my ribs. So this year (after some rumblings in this direction last year), the fashion mags proclaimed that high-waisted trousers are back! In fact, they seem to believe they are ubiquitous:
And for anyone tired of the smock, and the baby doll, and the high-waist trouser, and sick to death of wearing nothing but grey, or black, or shell (fashion speak for off-white), then I am afraid that next summer you will be disappointed. —The Daily Mail, 18 September 2006
Where on earth are all these high-waisted trousers? This summer I've returned five so-called items to mail order houses, and found just one pair in the High Street (AmE = 'on Main Street', but since there are no (AmE) stores/BrE shops on Main Street, USA anymore, the translation doesn't really work). Which brings me to the heart of my rant. I found another pair of trousers-that-fit-women-with-hips-and-waist in the US in March and both of these pairs of trousers/pants are made of (it makes my skin crawl even typing this) p-o-l-y-e-s-t-e-r. Reader, I am so desperate that I bought them. And by the second wearing, each of them was covered with (here comes the big BrE/AmE distinction that I wanted to get to!) (AmE) PILLS/(BrE) BOBBLES.

BH tells me that I need to get a Remington Fuzz-Away. But then again he is also the man who just said "If I had a band I'd call it Victor Kiam's Love Child."


  1. I was in Yorkshire recently and saw a man in denim slacks. Stonewash denim, of course. Appalling. I would definitely say that 'slacks' connotes a hideous, sexless trouser shape - most likely with pleats at the front (to emphasise the belly that the waistband's cutting in half), and tapered legs. Probably usually beige or black polyester, though the denim look was an interesting and alarming development.

    I'd say, bobbles are the product of the pilling process. Doesn't make all that much sense, but hey.

    [I have a pair of Boden sailor trousers and they come up over my belly button - i consider that high-waisted - and make my hips look approx. nine miles wide. Though the 'muffin-top' look ain't such a winner either. It's hard. And that's without even mentioning - aaargh! - leggings.]

  2. This of course begs the question: what is in the high street/on main street/on the main road (AusE) in the USA if not shops/stores?

  3. In many towns these days, just empty storefronts I'm afraid. You can still find banks and offices there too, but the mom-and-pop stores that used to be there have mostly been supplanted by mall-based franchises. This trend seems to be especially prevalent in the midwest; on the coasts many downtowns are healthier.

  4. Pants can mean trousers here, but would usually only be used when qualified in some way (for example, "a nice pair of pants" would probably be understood as trousers, not nickers). Underpants would usually imply y-fronts. Slacks are definitely a subclass of trousers.

    I'm so pleased that there are words for zeugma and syllepsis! I'd asked several people what that was called, but no one knew! It's not clear to me if they also apply to switching the meaning of a word unexpectedly, like "what's black and white and re(a)d all over"?

  5. I have a pair of Boden sailor trousers/pants, too, Ally (bought for a fiver at Oxfam, but mine don't quite come to my belly button (or as my NZ Pilates teacher used to always say--tummy button). Maybe I'm just a long-waisted freak of nature--except that I didn't have this problem with trousers/pants until about six years ago, and I certainly haven't grown upward in the waist since then.

  6. David--One does hear AmE pants to mean 'trousers' more and more in BrE--do you think it's a recent trend in Ireland or that pants=trousers is long-standing there? (OED doesn't give a clue--just says that the 'trouser' meaning is 'Chiefly N. Amer.' except when it occurs in a compound like hot pants or ski pants and that the underwear meaning is 'Chiefly Brit.' Oh, and the N. Amer. meaning goes back further (1835 vs. 1880). Both pant and panties are originally AmE.

    As for 'black and white and re(a)d all over' I'd just say that it's a pun based on some homophones.

    1. Pants is commonly used for trousers in North West England and "Kecks" in Liverpool. I hadn't heard underpants being called "pants" till I moved to London in the 90's.

  7. Ah, aidhoss, for people my age it doesn't beg the question, which is to say that it doesn't construct a circular argument or avoid a difficult point by making an unwarranted assumption. Hey ho.

  8. OT, lynneguist, but inspired by "pills":- can you explain why Americans, such as Slick Willie, seem to say "parse" when they mean "construe".

  9. The only ordinary use of trousers I can think of in American English is in the compound trouser socks. These are thin socks designed to be worn with pants suits. They're a bit more substantial than knee highs which are, essentially, knee-high nylons.

  10. Dearieme--I can't explain that meaning of parse as I've never heard it. In my experience, few people know the word parse and fewer use it correctly--on either side of the Atlantic.

    Alice uses some other Americanisms in her comment--but I swore I wasn't going to get into other items of clothing now, so I'll leave them until I do a post on hosiery!

  11. There is the same distinction between 'trouser socks' and 'knee-highs' in the UK. Don't want to preempt anything Lynne might put in a future hosiery post by saying more! :)

  12. I wasn't going for a list of clothing, honest I wasn't! I just wanted to point out a context in which "trouser(s)" is used in American English.

  13. MST3K
    did a song in tribute to trousers, called Pants!
    (Sing the praises of pants. /They hold in your gut and cover up your butt/Pants!) This was in response to Hercules vs the Moon Men, since the hero wore a toga, occasionally revealing said butt, to the repulsion of Joel and the 'Bots.

    I detest the word "panties." Just thought you should know.

  14. And David Letterman's production company is Worldwide Pants. Perhaps pants is just an inherently funny word...

  15. Trouser update: While writing this entry I found and ordered something at called "high-waisted trousers". They arrived yesterday. The (BrE) zip/(AmE) zipper is about 3 inches long--always the sign of a low-waisted trouser, and, sure enough, the highest part of the trouser was about 3" below the lowest part of my navel.

    What planet are these designers/marketers from? Do people have waists there?

  16. >>>One does hear AmE pants to mean 'trousers' more and more in BrE--do you think it's a recent trend in Ireland or that pants=trousers is long-standing there?<<<

    'Pants' is the standard term in Ireland and has been for as long as anybody can remember. If anything it is 'trousers' that is beginning to creep in under the influence perhaps of British TV, chain-stores etc.

  17. I have nothing to add linguistically, but I can rarely resist the opportunity to quote Ogden Nash, from the period when it was still unusual to see a woman in pants/trousers:

    Sure, dress your lower limbs in pants;
    Yours are the legs, my sweeting.
    You look divine as you advance...
    Have you seen yourself retreating?

  18. For a wonderful example of zeugma, or is it syllepsis, please listen to "Have some Madeira M'Dear" by Flanders and Swann.

    I can tell you that my BH uses 'parse' freely in lay conversation (we are Brit in the US). His (and now my) familiarity with the term comes from computer science usage, where it has pretty much the technical meaning you'd find in linguistics. I would guess he picked it up from colleagues and the slashdot school of writing.

  19. A Gentleman's trousers are never, ever to be discussed - the Victorians called the 'unmentionables' with very good reason. Base and dark happenings occur in that place which no polite person dare ever mention in society. I hope that this closes this most regrettably frank and explicit discourse.

  20. What about "britches"? Very fun to say, very southern American. Commonly used in the saying "too big for his britches" but also applicable to underpants/trousers/pants in normal conversation.

  21. For proper come-up-to-the-bellybutton pants, I can only suggest Land's End (a catalog outfit, though there are some physical stores in the US). They're very practical, simply cut, come in a range of inseam-to-waist relationships, and have Real Waists.

  22. I've got some Land's End trousers/pants with a side zip(per), but I still get a big gap at the back. This thread has absolutely convinced me that my figure is hideously freaky.

  23. A few notes:

    As far as I know, unmentionables referred to the underwear, not the outerwear.

    The metaphorical sense of parse 'consider carefully' was discussed on Language Log.

    Favorite line involving pants, from Kubla Khan:

    As if the earth in vast thick pants were breathing

  24. I looked up The Smoking Room after seeing your mention of it here. It's quite funny.

    In the third episode I heard "cantaloupe" pronounced as I'd never heard it before, like "can't-a-loop." Here in Ohio where I live, I've only ever heard it said like "can't-a-lope" (to rhyme with "antelope").

  25. Favourite line involving pants, from a Hardy chapter heading (either The Well-Beloved/Pair of Blue Eyes)

    "Her breath came in musical pants"

    I feel that I should point out that British tailors supposedly refer to a trouser (sing) rather than a pair of trousers.

  26. If pants is short for underpants what do you wear over your pants? My BrE husband has suggested overpants (because trousers doesn't make sense in this scenario). Thoughts?

  27. At least 18 years later high-waisted trousers aren't so hard to find any more (thankfully!). Meanwhile, nobody has mentioned the rather odd verb "to trouser", which appears to be synonymous with "to pocket", as in "he trousered a shedload of money...."


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)