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Origin of the Word "Pants"

Most often words of one syllable have Anglo-Saxon roots but occasionally one slips into English from the classics. One such is the word pants. Everyone knows the meaning of this word so why do I offer it to you here? It travelled a very interesting route to find its way to mean trousers or slacks.

William Safire cleverly explained this route in a New York Times article in the Sunday Magazine section. I regret I do not have the date it was published.

In his article he explains that a Christian doctor was condemned to death by the Romans in the 3rd century for aiding the poor. He was to be beheaded but survived the six attempts to take his life. Later the Church canonized him, giving him the name "Saint Pantaleone". Pan is Greek for "all" and leo is the Latin word for "lion". He was given this title to recognize his strength and courage. In time he became the patron saint of physicians. Looking for such courage and strength in their sons, numerous boys were christened with his name.

Where did "pants" come into this picture? In ca. 800 CE, in comic drama according to Robert Hendrickson in his book Facts on File: An Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, the fool in a comic production was called Panteleon ("all lion"). In time this changed to Pantaloon. The actor was dressed in breeches that were tight below the knee but which bloused out in a full puffy fashion from the waist to the knee.

In the 18th century the costume became one worn by many men. The famous portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud found in the Louvre shows Louis XIV in a regal pose, showing off his legs in a "Pantaloon" costume. The term was shortened to "pants" in the 1840s. The term pantaloons continued to be used when referring to the undergarment worn by women under hoop skirts in the same period.

Sometimes the Roman connected is far removed and indeed very odd. If you come across any similar tales, please share them.

^ Verba




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