Why Brits and Americans Use the Word ‘Pants’ Differently

White pants on a washing line against a yellow wall
Image credit: Pikrepo

Writing recently about boxer shorts, I mentioned the age-old face-off between boxers and briefs. But there’s a related rivalry that’s equally noteworthy and has been the cause of much intercontinental confusion over the years. I’m thinking, of course, about the use of the word ‘pants’.

In Britain it means underwear while in America it refers to trousers. Much like trainers v. sneakers, braces v. suspenders, or waistcoat v. vest, the case of pants v. underwear is the archetype of clothing terms being lost in transatlantic translation. 

But how, you might wonder, given a shared use of the English language, did the confusion arise? The roots of the answer can be found, oddly enough, in the theatre of Medieval Europe.

Commedia dell’arte, the Italian form of comic theatre popular from the 16th to 18th centuries, had a stock character known as Pantalone. He was portrayed as a villainous old man whose costume, as described by Merriam-Webster, ‘consisted of a soft brimless hat; a pleated black cassock (typically worn open); slippers; and a vest, breeches, and stockings that were conspicuously red and tight-fitting’. In later depictions of the character, he is shown wearing long, slim-cut trousers.

Black and white etching of a pantalone costume
Image credit: Jacques Callot / CC0 1.0
Painting of a pantalone costume in red
Image credit: Maurice Sand / Public domain

When trousers in a similar style proved popular in England in the latter 1600s, they became known by the anglicised version of Pantalone’s character name, ‘Pantaloon’, and in time ‘pantaloons’ became the generic word for trousers both in England and across the pond. The word would be shortened to ‘pants’ by the mid 19th century. 

At this point, fashion takes over. Since pantaloons were associated with a slimmer fit, when wider trousers came into fashion in England, ‘pants’ came to refer to the more snug garments worn underneath trousers. Hence pants meaning ‘underpants’. 

By this point, however, the New World had been thoroughly untethered from Britain, so there was no need to follow suit. Hence America retaining the original sense of the word. 

So American independence accounts for the differing usage of ‘pants’; perhaps globalisation will help settle the case of fanny pack v. bum bag.

* My thanks to Oscar Lenius’s A Well-Dressed Gentleman’s Pocket Guide where I first read about the source of this linguistic oddity.

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