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Zoe Mulford: Postcards (Blog)

The English Language: Pants (Click Header for Full Entry)

Posted on March 12, 2010 with 0 comments

Americans use “pants” as a synonym for “trousers”. Don’t do that in England, where “pants” equals “underwear”. Where the American press wrote about the Underwear Bomber, the British headlines were all about the Pants Bomber.

Like many mildly rude words, it has a grammatical life of its own. I find it rather charming.

As an adjective, it is one of a family of words that denote varying degrees of badness, as in:

“I’m pants at maths.”

(“Rubbish”, “crap”, and “shite” can also be used in this way.)

The badness can have an additional aspect of nonsense:

“The first half was pants but I stayed until the end and it was actually a great film.” (Example from a very handy online dictionary of British slang.)

It can be used by itself as an expletive. It can also be used to express disdain and defiance:

“Pants to that!”

Hence the Fairtrade cotton underwear company Pants to Poverty.