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The varied vocabulary of underwear

The varied vocabulary of underwear

Your response to today’s Take Your Pants For A Walk Day, assuming it has even crossed your radar, will probably be determined by your location. Perhaps you have conjured up an image of droves of people with boxer shorts, knickers, or Y-fronts attached to leads? Or maybe instead of underwear, you are seeing chinos, slacks, and jeans?

Of course, I am being slightly facetious here. Presumably the idea is that one should be wearing said items of clothing whilst taking them for a walk. But even once we have established this point, the day could still cause some confusion. Say ‘nice pants’ to a Brit like me, and I’ll be paranoid that in my haste to get out of the house in good time, I forgot to put on a vital part of my wardrobe and have now become something of an exhibitionist. Either that or I’m having a Marilyn Monroe moment. Say ‘nice pants’ to someone from almost any other part of the world, and they’ll say ‘thanks’ or ‘I thought it was too cold for a skirt’.

For some of us, pants are undergarments, and unless we have a penchant for going commando, something that all of us wear every single day. For others, ‘pants’ denotes any outer garment covering the body from the waist to the ankles, with a separate part for each leg, contrasted with things like skirts, shorts, or sarongs. Anyone who thinks the distinction is a little frivolous might be interested to know that the potential for confusion is noted in Fowler, that classic authority on English usage, where the following example is given to illustrate the point:

I heard an American student at Cambridge University telling some English friends how he climbed over a locked gate to get into his college and tore his pants, and one of them asked in confusion, ‘But how could you tear your pants without tearing your trousers?’.

Don’t mention the pants

There are at least a couple of other terms which can apply to both of these items. Kecks is one. A British slang terms which goes back to the 1960s, kecks can be an item of underwear, or a pair of trousers. The historical Oxford English Dictionary also has evidence from the early 1900s referring to the pockets in trousers, rather than the whole garment.

Or how about the slightly tongue-in-cheek unmentionables? While it can obviously be used to refer to anything deemed too shocking to mention, currently the earliest citation of the noun in the OED refers to trousers, with underwear following a little while later. While you can see why might feel it indelicate in certain situations to talk about undergarments, it is a little hard to see why trousers shouldn’t be named. Yet, there is also the even earlier inexpressible to refer to trousers or breeches. Quite why these were seen as vulgar is probably a matter best left for the clothes historian to explain.

A miscellany of knickers

But I digress. The vocabulary of underwear is varied and all-encompassing, ranging from the deliciously euphemistic to the vaguely fanciful. Here are a few which might be a little more unfamiliar.

Dessous comes from French, and it has occasionally been used in English to refer to underwear. The illustrative quotations given in the OED for this word demonstrate that a particular type of underwear is meant here. Think pink and think satin and you’ll have got the picture.

Napery is commonly used to mean household linen. But for a short while in the late 1500s into the early 1600s, it also referred to underwear. In contrast with dessous, the emphasis seems to have been firmly on the wholesome and practical.

If both of these are a little too bold, then you can always employ a discreet euphemism. How about the rather bland smalls? Although the term can refer to items of clothing in general that are small (and again, originally, it did refer specifically to breeches), it’s now most commonly used to refer to underwear.  But without actually saying so, otherwise its euphemistic qualities would be lost.

Or how about the quaint nether garments? The OED gives a lovely example from Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage which demonstrates that even referring to trousers is a little too much for some.

She scented indecency everywhere; she never spoke of trousers but referred to them as nether garments.

Nether comes from Old English and can refer variously to the lower part of things. It’s probably more familiar in the term nether regions, but as evidenced by the OED, is also used to refer to underwear.

If these are all a little bland for you (and of course, a euphemism wouldn’t be a euphemism if it wasn’t at least a little bit bland), then there are other more colourful options. The US word pettibockers, for example, which is defined in the OED as ‘an ankle-length, loose-fitting pair of pants worn by women and girls as underwear’. A blend of petticoat and knickerbockers, the name itself suggests a rather chaste garment. Contrast this with scanties, which does exactly what it says on the tin and seems to be the polar opposite of those pettibockers.

A couple of more colourful ones with which to leave you. Chuddies, which has been used since the 1990s, chiefly among British Asians. Its origin is a little uncertain but it may be an alteration of the Hindi word churidar. Or how about the delightfully descriptive shreddies? The term is a slang one, originally coming from the military, and is especially applied to men’s underpants. It apparently comes from the adjective shreddy, meaning ‘consisting of or resembling shreds; hanging in shreds, ragged’, and refers to underpants having a tattered, shabby appearance.

Now, I know there is a cliché about saving your worst underwear for the day you do your washing, but maybe if your pants are in such a state, you might consider throwing them out rather than taking them for a walk.

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