Pants are named after a clown named after a saint
Let’s undress all the weird ways your two-legged garments got their names.
Jeans, Dungarees, and Denim
The word “jeans” comes from Genes, the Old French word for “Genoa,” the city in Italy where the fabric once known as “jene fustian” was manufactured.
You have to go farther east for the source of “dungarees,” which comes from dungrī, a Hindi term for the fabric that dungarees were originally made from, which itself was named for the district in Mumbai where the fabric originated.
“Denim” derives from the French phrase de Nîmes, which literally means “of Nîmes,” referring to the city where it was manufactured: Nîmes, France.
Khakis and Chinos
The names of the casual pants known as khakis and chinos are based not on places but on their color. The fabric known as “khaki” was used in the mid-19th century for uniforms of British soldiers in India and later became the official color for British army uniforms. Its name comes from an Urdu word meaning “dusty,” referring to its tan color.
Chinos get their name from chino fabric—a coarse, twilled cotton whose etymology is less certain. It is thought to come from an American Spanish term meaning “yellowish,” referring its original tan color, and perhaps ultimately from the Spanish word for “Chinese” or “from China.”
Fancy Pants, Sporty Pants
They all have two legs in common, but pants are designed in all manner of shapes and for all kinds of activities. If you're looking for wide, flowing pants, you want palazzo pants. Palazzo is the Italian word for “palace,” likely in honor of the Palazzo Pitti, where such pants are said to have been first worn as part of an outfit called “palazzo pajamas” that incorporated a blouse along with the pants. (“Pajamas” comes from an Urdu term meaning “loose-fitting trousers.”)
If you prefer cropped, close-fitting pants, you want capri pants, or “capris,” which were created and found initial popularity on the Italian island of Capri.
You may have heard the terms “capris” and “pedal pushers” used interchangeably (most likely because both styles are cropped), but there is a difference: “pedal pushers” are usually longer in length and were originally made to be worn by bicyclists—hence the name.
Speaking of pants worn while riding, let’s not forget jodhpurs, pants that fit tightly from knee to ankle and are traditionally worn for horseback riding. They get their name from Jodhpur, an Indian city known for its wool and other textiles.
Today, many types of pants designed for exercise are made at least partially from the synthetic elastic fabric spandex, whose name was fittingly coined from an anagram of the word “expands.”
We can’t expound upon spandex without mentioning the leotard, which can refer to two distinct articles of clothing, depending on where you are in the world and whether the term is singular or plural. The singular “leotard” typically refers to a tight-fitting suit for athletic or acrobatic pursuits that may or may not include a leg covering. In the US and Canada, though, the plural “leotards” is sometimes used as a synonym for tights or stockings. You can thank 19th-century French acrobat Jules Léotard for the name, though it was not used until after his death. During his life, Léotard called the garment a maillot, a term now used for a tight-fitting, one-piece bathing suit (whose origin is, suitably, from an Old French term meaning “swaddling clothes”).
Knickerbockers, Breeches, and Bloomers
Although we have France, India, and Italy to thank for many of our pants’ names, a few come from the United States, including the one whose name is perhaps the most fun to say: knickerbockers. At one time, both the term “knickerbocker” and the style of breeches it described were widely associated with Dutch immigrants in the US. This connection is usually attributed to the excellently named Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious “author” of Washington Irving’s satire A History of New York, which focused on the state’s Dutch settlers. The close association of the word "knickerbocker" with New York led to the term being used for the name of the New York Knicks basketball team. (The shortened form, “knickers,” is used in the UK as a synonym for “panties,” including when rudely telling someone what they should not get in a twist.)
On the topic of undergarments and New York, bloomers—those loose pants that women wore under their skirts starting in the mid-19th century—are named for a real New York native, Amelia Jenks Bloomer. A social reformer and women’s rights activist, Bloomer popularized the reformed dress style of a short skirt and full trousers that became known as the Bloomer costume, or bloomers.
The final leg
You’ll notice that the word “pants” and several specific types of pants sound as if they are plural, even though they refer to single items. The same goes for many other single objects that consist of two connected parts, such as glasses and scissors, which we also refer to with the phrase “a pair of.” When it comes to pants, the “pair” alludes to the fact that there are two openings for the legs.
The singular word “pant” is sometimes used, but predominantly within the fashion industry, as in: “The designer has come out with a fresh variation on her trademark pant.”
“Pantaloons,” in turn, took their name from the “pantaloon,” a masked stock character in commedia dell'arte, a form of stage comedy popular in Italy from the 16th to 18th centuries. The name of the pantaloon, portrayed as a foolish old man in tight trousers and slippers, was derived from Saint Pantaleon, a 3rd-century Roman physician. That’s a lot of history packed into two legs!
If these fun pants facts haven’t bored the pants off you, be a smarty pants and share them with your friends!
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