The Patron Saint of Physicians and protector of Italy's Venice – Pantaleon – was the origin of what we now call "pants." Altered from "pantaloons," this common word in our vocabulary is the result of blending the Saint with an Italian comedic character named "Panteleone" (note: added "e") (Garrison, pp. 229-230). One theory that connects these two seemingly unrelated personages is that the Venetians, in general, were referred to as Pantaloni (American Heritage, p. 208). The fictitious character wore, as one of his hallmarks, a costume of breeches and stockings, as a single garment. It was original, to say the least, and so was named for him, and for the Saint, later adjusted in English to be "pantaloons." This applied to "loose-fitting breeches" (Garrison, pp. 229-230) but, over time, and because of the advent of more tight-fitting leggings, soon was the common term for today's trousers. It didn't enter the accepted vocabulary until sometime later (thanks to Edgar Allen Poe's use of the word), as it was believed to be too vulgar for any decent person to shorten "pantaloons" to such a slang term as "pants" (American Heritage, p. 208).
Now that we know the origin of "pants," we wonder how long it took for them to be recognized with the authority of the patriarch of the household, as is implied with the phrase "who wears the pants in the family?" Of course, women would not be caught dead in the male's garb until it became both necessary and convenient. Certainly there were the unusual examples of pre-WWII females-in-pants, but, in general, women in trousers became a more commonplace phenomenon when they were found taking over the men's jobs when their husbands, sons, and fathers headed off to war. There is little doubt that, during those war years, the one who wore the pants in the family was the one who was bringing home the paycheck, cooking the meals, getting the children to bed, and cleaning house, clothes, and dishes (Morris & Morris, p. 441).
This brings to mind a reference to "pants" that implies an embarrassing situation: to be caught with one's pants down. Most of us can see the problem with this literal circumstance, but we tend to use the phrase figuratively: we have been uncomfortably surprised. With modern conveniences and privacy of dressing chambers, it has been a long time since most civilized people would be so vulnerable as to be caught, literally, with pants down. However, it is supposed that the term probably originated from a very real event, when our frontier ancestors had to take care of business when nature called, in spite of, perhaps, the dangers of the surroundings. The pioneer who is out to shoot the evening's main course, being in such a predicament, might find himself "at his business" when surprised by a wild animal or a marauding Native. It is quite possible that this actual experience spawned the now (hopefully) only figurative use of the phrase (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 88).
Now that we know where the term "pants" comes from, and how it is only slightly removed from being an undergarment, we move to the derogatory term "pantywaist." Why would a person (usually a male child) be called a "pantywaist" when the ridiculer perceived him as being a "sissy" or a "wimp"? It seems that once upon a not-too-long-time-ago there was an undergarment, called "pantywaists," which connected the undershirt to the underpants with buttons. The idea, by the manufacturer, was that this would be an effective means of keeping the bottoms and tops together for both boys and girls. But the boys would have none of it. Nada. Forget it. Yet the girls were pleased with the effect of the connected pieces of their underclothing (after all, girls are more fastidious than boys, as a rule, and would be mortified if the tail of an undershirt slipped out from underneath a skirt and blouse . . . would that boys were so particular!). So when a boy (more often than a girl) called one of his chums a "pantywaist," he was simply identifying the poor child with a piece (or pieces) of girls' undergarments (Feldman, p. 81).
Moving from the pants to other terms for the same garment, we might wonder why we would call this piece of apparel "trousers" (making it sound as if there were more than one). From the Gaelic tribuhas (pronounced "triwas") this term was transformed into the English trouse. Because the garment has an appearance of two sections sewn together, it was then made plural: trouses. It is only one short step from there to the current trousers. But, at the same time this word growth was occurring in England, the term metamorphosed, in Scotland, to trews. Some say that the original word is actually trebus (in French) from tubracos (in Latin), both meaning "leg covering." Another theory is that the word tubracos is actually a compilation of tibia (meaning "shin") and braca (meaning "buttocks"), because the garment extends from the shins to the buttocks. Interestingly, it is that word – braca (the plural being bracae) – that was altered to become "breeches" (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 181-182).
My recollection of the word "breeches" is that it was pronounced "britches." It is the same thing, however: the covering for the breech part of the body, extending to the feet. But the term "breeches" was, at one point in time, considered vulgar (is "britches" the euphemistic replacement then?) and some used the phrase "too big for his boots," eventually replacing boots with "breeches" and, later, "britches." Another, similar descriptor, with the same meaning, is that he has a "swelled head" (too big for his hat). It all comes down to describing the person (usually a child or younger individual) who is "full of himself" and attempting (unsuccessfully) to impress those around him (Funk, Hog on Ice, p 74). How far back does it date? While it has been recorded in some form since the mid-1800s, it probably was in use much earlier ("to big for his fig leaf"?).
Rarely in use these days, but possibly referenced in letters from or to your ancestors or in other documents from a bygone era we find the curious term "knickerbockers." While the knee-length pants that fit the description of "knickerbockers" have been worn for centuries, the actual term (often abbreviated to "knickers") is fairly recent (ca. 1850s). It came about because of George Cruikshank, a British caricaturist, who provided the illustrations for a reissued, English version of A History of New York, a satirical piece written by Washington Irving (under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker), originally published in 1809. With pictures to accompany the text, the unique garment was given the name "knickerbockers," after the author, who really had nothing to do with the christening of the pants (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 35).
It always surprises me, when I am asked for my name (Jean) that so many people spell it so wrong (Gene, Gean, Jene, Jane – how do they get that?). After all, the same people who are misspelling it frequently are wearing the garment that is nothing more than my name in its plural form! What makes this even more ironic is that the cotton twill fabric that becomes "blue jeans" is believed to have originated in Genoa, Italy and was initially called "Gene fustian, Gene, or Geane." Once brought to America, the name was altered to a more accepted spelling. It is first referenced in the early 1840s (American Heritage, p. 148). The fabric we most closely associate with blue jeans is "denim," another item named after a city, in this case Nīmes, France – at its onset, the fabric was called serge de Nīmes. But the most common manufacturer of our jeans – the ones that bear the "Levis" moniker – are names for a man: Levi Strauss, who brought his denim material to the Gold Rush in California to provide tents for the miners. Finding that they needed sturdy dungarees more than shelter, he quickly altered the pattern and "Levis" were born (Feldman, p. 124).
But I grew up with my mother calling all such garments – jeans, trousers, pants – "slacks," when worn by women. What an odd word. If I was being less than diligent, she also used the word in the context of my "slacking off." And when something is loose, it can be said to be "slack." How are all these connected (or are they)? The German word sleg means "lazy" or "careless"; this, of course, is the origin of our "slack," with the same meaning. So is one who wears "slacks" assumed to be "careless"? No, not the person, but the material used to make the garment is sewn so that the result is a loose-fitting leg covering (as opposed to, say, "tights"). Interestingly, the German sleg is related to leg and the Latin form lax, which we recognize as meaning "less than strict" and from which we get our words "relax" and "laxative" (Morris).
So there you have it, an entire wardrobe of names for essentially a single garment. Whether your ancestors wore trousers, knickers, pantaloons, slacks, jeans, or pants, now you have the background for the names of their apparel. Let us hope that we are never "caught with our pants down" in our research efforts. Don't be a pantywaist when it comes to reporting the truth about the family history and never slack off the efforts to uncover all the documents to verify ancestral relationships. We are the ones who should "wear the (genealogical) pants in the family," being the historians the rest of the relatives come to for accurate and complete information.
American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.
Feldman, David. Who Put the Butter in Butterfly? . . . and Other Fearless Investigations into our Illogical Language. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.
Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986
Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.
Morris, Evan. "Slack." The Word Detective. On-line resource, March 24, 2008; retrieved November 3, 2010 from http://www.word-detective.com/2008/03/24/slack/.
Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.