knickerbockers


Knickerbocker in English starts out in the US, where it was used to refer to descendants of the early Dutch colonists in Manhattan, formerly New Amsterdam. Knickerbocker (in various spellings) was a common name among those settlers, but the one that inspired the New Yorker nickname was the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, the supposed author of Washington Irving's satirical A History of New York (1809). It seems to get going as a term for such New Yorkers in the mid-19th century.  Irving and some writer contemporaries later became known as the Knickerbocker Group.

But the more famous group of people named after the knickerbocker nickname is the basketball team, the New York Knickerbockers, which these days tends to go by the shortened name, The Knicks.

Baggy trousers

See Fashion History Timeline
for more

In the 1860s, it comes to be used for a style of (orig. AmE in this sense) poofy knee-breeches, which resembled the style worn by the Dutchmen in (Englishman) George Cruikshank's illustrations of Irving's book in the 1850s.

This fashion sense of knickerbockers moved over to the UK too. In the US, it is often shortened to knickers (it's a clipping), but not BrE because...



Women's undies*

After knickers came into BrE, it started to refer to women's underpants. The AmE panties can be given as an equivalent, except that many AmE speakers (including me) find the word panties a bit (AmE) icky, and so we just say underwear. Technically, underwear can refer to more than just those small bottom pieces, but if I say "I need to do laundry. I'm out of underwear", it's specifically those bottoms that I'm talking about. (Bre) knickers is not so icky in its natural environs.

Though knickers is a very clear example of a Britishism now, it's interesting to note its AmE roots, since it is a clipping of knickerbockers. I presume this is because women's undies used to look like knickerbocker breeches. Such undergarments were also called bloomers (in both Englishes), as were the outerwear women's knickerbockers that gained popularity as women started bicycling. (Unrelatedly, bloomer also  happens to be the name of a type of bread loaf in BrE.) In BrE, the word knickers changed with the changes in underwear styles, but the word bloomers didn't.

I've written about knickers a couple of times before: in contrast to men's (BrE) pants and in expressions like red shoes, no knickers.

*Undies appears to be originally BrE (early 20th c), but has long been well-established in AmE too.

Ice cream

This whole post got started because an English friend gave the word knickerbocker as an example of a word with three Ks (in discussion of this tweet) with the aside "as in knickerbocker glory", leading me to think that he only really knew the word in that context.

A (BrE) knickerbocker glory is an ice cream sundae served in a tall glass. The first citation for it in the OED is in a Graham Greene novel in 1936—though the term was clearly well-known at that point since he didn't have to explain it. It only takes off in British books in the 1970s, though, when my friend and our friends were growing up, eating ice cream. 

This is quite a while after Americans invented the word sundae, which was originally Sunday, as in the day of the week when it was (purportedly) served. About this, the OED says:

Evidence suggests that the use of Sunday to designate an ice-cream dish of this kind originates with Chester C. Platt (1869–1934), proprietor of Platt and Colt's Pharmacy in Ithaca, New York, who is said to have served it to Unitarian pastor John M. Scott at his premises after the Sunday church service on 3 April 1892. A letter from a patent attorney dated 24 March 1894 shows that Platt sought advice on trademark protection for the use of ‘Sunday’ for ice-cream novelties a few days earlier.
 
The motivation for the subsequent respelling of the word [...] is uncertain: it may reflect an attempt by other retailers to avoid a perceived breach of trademark; it may be a reaction to the religious associations of Sunday as a day of abstinence; or it may simply have been intended to be eye-catching.


The knickerbocker glory is a prototypical ice cream sundae, but the word sundae has not caught on so much in BrE as in AmE:




29 comments

  1. Underwear was also called "smalls", especially when it came to washing...you couldn't call bloomers small!

    ReplyDelete
  2. On the matter of "panties", I was amused a few years ago listening to the thirties song Shuffle off to Buffalo. There is a line (sung by a man) "I'll"go home and get my panties,You go home and get your scanties." I presume "panties" was coined in this case to make the rhyme.

    ReplyDelete
  3. One of my grandmothers wore what were called "directoire knickers" which were long and silky and gathered by elastic just above the knee. They were quite difficult to get hold of by the time she died inin the 1990s!

    ReplyDelete
  4. When I was a girl in the UK (some 50+ years ago) the undergarments were referred to as ‘pants’ - similarly for men, although shops described them as ‘briefs’, hence the jokes about lawyers inspecting their briefs ... Then ‘knickers’ became a word that raised a laugh, either as a tame swear word or as a ‘humorous’ reference to little girls and what they wore under their gym slips ... Then along came Bridget Jones, representing the anguish of young women trying to make their way in London, and her ‘big pants’, which were unflattering old-lady garments that nevertheless protected her virtue/dignity.
    Goodness, there’s a whole thesis there in the humour to be derived from underwear.

    The classic US baseball uniform includes slimmed-down knickerbockers but an American friend was surprised when I referred to them as a hangover from the 18th-century. The long trousers worn by cricketers presumably derive from a 19th-century gentleman’s summer clothing, but of course the same gentlemen would wear knickerbockers or ‘plus-fours’ for angling or for golf.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Plus-four means extending four inches below the knee.

      Delete
    2. It is the fold that extends four inches; in other words, unfolded and hanging straight, the garment reaches eight inches below the knee. For outdoor activities plus-twos are often more practical - the garment reaching four inches below the knee, but two inches when folded and fastened.

      Delete
    3. So, as worn, they extend four inches below the knee.

      Delete
  5. Thank you so much, Lynne! Extremely interesting, as usual!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I once read that the problem with the word 'panties' is that it simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes and nobody wants that!

    ReplyDelete
  7. When I was a naive (US) boy, I thought panties just meant pantyhose, which lead to some confusing and awkward conversations.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Underwear is comprised of undershirts and underpants. Is the word undershirt used in BrE?

    Also, banana splits and rootbeer floats (popular in the 40's and 50's but not so much these days) were types of ice cream dishes like sundaes. Are Knickerbocker glories a sundae or a type of dish like banana splits?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. An undershirt (US) is a vest (BrE), I think. With a vest (US) being a waistcoat (BrE). It's odd how confusingly divergent BrE and AmE are when is comes to clothing (see also: pants. And let's on mention fanny packs!).

      Delete
    2. And, oh god, suspenders - another difference giving endless delight to the more juvenile of us.

      Delete
    3. I remember someone pointing out that a person dressed in vest and pants is a lot less formally dressed in the UK compared to the US.

      As to suspenders, I remember someone from the UK telling me that the first time he went to the US, he found women in bars asked him three question. How old are you? What star sign are you? What turns you on? When he answered "suspenders" to the last question, he wondered why everyone was looking at him funny.

      Delete
    4. For vests, please see/comment at: https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/08/jumpers-sweaters-and-like.html

      Delete
    5. Knickerbocker glories I suppose would be classed as a sundae (but then, so, surely, would banana splits?) - a large glassful of jelly, ice-cream and fruit, in layers, topped off with squirty cream and a wafer.

      Delete
  9. When I was growing up west of Albany, NY in the 60s and 70s, my brothers had paper routes delivering city's daily newspaper, the "Knickerbocker News"(now the "Times-Union" -- rather more staid).

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  11. When I was very small, the school I went to required navy pants to be worn under one's tunic; they were only the outer layer, though - under them one wore plain white cotton pants, known as "linings". My senior school was rather more civilised, and one only wore the coloured (brown, in this case) pants for gymnastics, along with a white Aertex shirt, that would nowadays be called a polo shirt.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes yes! Except at my school the outer pants for gym were navy!

      The other point - in response to your description earlier of directoire knickers - one could keep a handkerchief between the inner and outer pants quite hygienically, or at the 'knee' end of the long knickers. Or so I am told by people even older than me.

      Delete
    2. I think they sometimes had pockets in the outer pants, where handkerchiefs, dinner money, etc, could be stored.

      Delete
  12. I remember an episode of Pokémon in which a character named Nikolai the Knickerbocker examined a main character's legwear and exclaimed, 'You're wearing knickers! Just like me!' Which is very hard not to giggle at if you're English.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I still have some children's books from the WW1 era that belonged to my father, and I think there are occasional references there to boys calling their knickerbockers 'knickers'. I also remember my mother (b. 1912) referring to 'keeping your handkerchief in your knicker leg,' which used to puzzle me when I was a child. For bloomers, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloomers

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  15. The newspapers.com archive shows advertisements for "Knicker Suits (for Young Gentlemen)" from 1864, and for "Drawers and Knickers (Ladies' Underclothing)" from 1880. Both are from English newspapers.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I've just remembered the "Knickerbockerbreaker" in Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome - it is the second book in the series - written in the 1930s. One of the characters enjoyed sliding down a rock slope but this made holes in his knickerbockers which had to be darned - IIRC the illustration in the book showed the darning occurring with the owner still inside the knickerbockers...

    ReplyDelete
  17. We still need to know why a sundae gained the name Knickerbocker Glory!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This from the foodsofengland.co.uk website:
      "The word 'Knickerbocker' comes from the Dutch surname sufficiently significant among early settlers in New York to have became a nickname for old-style European-Americans, and their distinctive trousers. As a sweet desert, however, it seems to now be entirely English, though the origin is unclear.

      It is possibly the case that KG was created and named in the 1920's by Lyon's Bakeries as part of a fantasy range of ice-creams for their 'Corner House' cafes alongside other outerwear-themed desserts, such as the 'plus four'. Indeed, an article in the 'Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer' - Monday 06 May 1929, p8 - tells of an unusually greedy schoolboy who; "declared:-'it's nothing. I should have had room for Knickerbocker Glory, or a Charlie Chaplin Waistcoat, to finish up with!' on inquiry, it was found that these illuminating names referred to ice-cream sundaes."

      Another possibility is that the name is somehow connected with the Knickerbocker Ice Co of New York, one of the largest 19th Century 'ice harvesters' who collected ice from frozen lakes in winter and stored it in insulated ice-houses to sell over summer and whose business disappeared along with the appearance of refrigerators in the 1920's."

      Delete
  18. The evening newspaper in Albany, NY was the Knickerbocker News, until it died c 1987 when it merged with the morning Times Union. The arena in downtown Albany was the Knickerbocker arena, or the Knick, until naming rights superseded.

    ReplyDelete

The book!

Follow by email

View by topic

Twitter

Abbr.

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