A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker magazine ran an online competition asking readers “to propose a single English word that should be eliminated from the language.” The winner, somewhat puzzlingly, was slacks. This is a rather old-fashioned term for what Americans call “pants” and Brits call “trousers,” which is my subject today.

The term dates from the seventeenth century and virtually all the OED’s citations for it and the many phrases and compounds formed from it (wears the trousers in the family, anything in trousers, not in these trousers) come from Britain, with one of the few exceptions being this 2005 quote from The New York Post: “Lee was game and let his trouser snake loose.”

The word initially forced its way into my consciousness via a moment on the Rolling Stones 1970 live album, “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” in which Mick Jagger addresses the audience: “Ah think I’ve busted a button [heavy glottal stop on the “buh-un”] on my trousers. I hope they don’t fall down….You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do ya?”

Pants, dating from the early 1800, is the preferred American term. In the U.K., of course, that word means something completely different.

Trousers has, or have, been making inroads over here for some time, but seemed to have reached a crescendo of late, referring to articles worn by both men and women. In Anne Tyler’s new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, a man reflects about his wife: “Her clothes made her figure seem squat — wide, straight trousers and man-tailored shirts, chunky crepe-soled shoes of a type that waitresses favored in diners.”

Writing in the New York Times on May 1 about a new Ferragamo store, Alexandra Jacobs observes, “A fellow wearing cerulean trousers and slicked-back hair sampled driving moccasins while his bored-looking female companion sat on a couch, an amusing inversion of the customary situation.”

To be sure, the Times is fond of trousers. The chart below shows its frequency in the paper in twelve-month periods (May through April), 2006 to the present.

58 thoughts on ““Trousers”

  1. Does that chart include instances of “trouser” (as in “trouser leg” or “trouser snake”) or just “trousers”?

  2. I agreed wholeheartedly with eliminated slacks from the English language. Please consider removing panties, twinkle and zesty. Those words also irk me when I’m feeling cranky.

  3. In a bar/restaurant in Moscow I saw that the walls were covered with copies of a Chicago newspaper from the 1930s. There were several advertisements for `trouser suits’. As a Brit, I am not sure what the preferred US terminology is now. I am quite willing to carry out further research when I am next in Moscow!!!!!

  4. I have just discovered that in the 1944 edition of Thorndike & Lorge’s `The Teacher’s Wordbook of 30,000 Words’ (Columbia University: Teachers Ciollege), `trousers’ is much more common than `pants’.

  5. How about the expression “all mouth and no trousers”, or its variation “all mouth and trousers” ?
    In Britain, ‘slacks’ usually refers to casual trousers, ‘flannels’, relaxed-but-sporty, as in a social tennis club situation. Definitely a class thing.

  6. In (US) women’s fashion lingo, “trousers” has a different connotation than “pants.” Trousers are tailored like traditional menswear, with a French fly, lining, and V-notch in the back waistband. Pants are more casual: think of chinos, capris, or those drawstring-waist pajama-like jobbies. It’s not uncommon for a womenswear brand to sell both pants and trousers. See J. Crew: http://www.jcrew.com/womens_feature/NewArrivals/pants.jsp

    @mjy1: I know only the Texas variant: “All hat, no cattle.”

  7. I’ve not heard anyone in the U.S. use the phrase “all mouth and no trousers” but it sounds similar to that Texas chestnut, “All hat and no cattle,” meaning someone who looks and acts like something he is not. Is that the general gist of the mouth/trousers saying?

      1. Not quite – specifically to physically back up “the verbals”(!)
        A milder version would be “put your money where your mouth is”

      2. Nope, there is a fine line there that you hadn’t quite reached with your explanation.
        It is very subtle and is very much to do with masculinity.

    1. There’s a similar expression, “All fur coat and no knickers”, which I first heard in a production of Alan Plater’s play “Close the Coalhouse Door”. It was used to describe a woman of working class origin who had done well for herself and liked to “put on airs”.

      1. In a similar vein – this came up in conversation recently:- “Red hat, no drawers”, but a couple of younger people said they remembered it as “Red shoes, no drawers”.
        I clearly remember it as Red HAT, so wondered if the move over to Red SHOES came about in the late 1950s when the trend was for ladies not to wear a hats?

  8. One of the other hated words was “moist.” It’s all ridiculous. “Moist” and “slacks” are perfectly fine words as long as they’re not used together.

  9. There is also the verb “to trouser”, used of MPs’ expenses, lawyers’ fees, civil servants’ bonuses, etc.

  10. “Slacks” strikes me as old-fashioned. I don’t know anybody under 40 years old in the US who uses that word. Mainly “pants” in the US, but increasingly “trousers” on both sides of the Atlantic. I tend to use “trousers”. I absolutely detest the fashionista habit of using “pant” in the singular. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just sounds pretentious. I’ve recently started saying “that’s pants!” to everything. Started as a joke, but now I can’t stop.

    1. Trousers do have the tendency of coming across as old-fashioned; Sarah Silverman has a song with the line, “or trousers, as they say back in the day”.
      Hold on, People actually say “pant”? That’s like saying “scissor”!
      On a final note, Mick Jagger used a Britishism in “Under my Thumb” that never caught on: he sang “it’s down to me”, which is equivalent to the American “it’s up to me”.

  11. Not on ‘trousers’ but on ‘crescendo’. ‘Crescendo’ (Italian) means ‘growing’, it is not what is reached, which would be a climax , but the process of getting there. A common mistake on both sides of the Atlantic, it would seem, even among the highly educated.

  12. As much as I love the blog posts, the comments give me greater pleasure.

    I am 52, and have used “trousers” all my life. I also use slacks, but I only used it because it made my daughters roll their eyes.

    In any event, I am surprised to read that the use of “trousers” is increasing here in these United States. I assumed it was very American, but of an earlier time.

    Of course, I did read a lot of Penguin edition paperbacks whilst overseas. . . .


  13. Isn’t “pants” short for “pantaloons?” Also, where should the question mark go in the previous sentence, inside or outside the closing quotation mark?

    1. In mid-20th century America, we were taught always to put punctuation added at the end of a sentence inside the quotation mark, if present; but that seemed illogical to me. After all, my punctuation wasn’t part of the original quotation. Besides, it often looked bad.
      A few years ago, after receiving an email from a secondary school professional with the closing quotation mark inside the sentence-ending punctuation mark, I checked online for an update to the rule, and found that now, 50% of professional grammarians regard either inside or outside as permissable, which gave me license to punctuate as I please.

  14. How about breeches/britches? In the Southern US where I grew up, “britches” was kind of a jokey term, but I had assumed that breeches was an archaic British term. Does anyone know if it’s still used in the UK?

    1. Only for a specific type of almost skin-tight trousers, usually horse-riding/showjumping britches/breeches, though there are ceremonial costumes that use them too. All britches are trousers, but not all trousers are britches. I think britches evolved into trousers originally; any fashion-history geeks here may know for certain.

  15. Of course “trouser snake” may benefit from the alliterative alternative “trouser trout” , particularly with the premodifier “one-eyed”.

  16. In Britain, I often hear radio commentators, or newpaper writers, use the phrase “growing into a crescendo”. Tautological?

  17. We had weekly drill from a US Marine as part of 9th grade boys’ phys ed around 1960. He was emphatic that we wore “trousers”, while “pants” were underthings for girls. He had no use for “slacks” at all.

    1. Perhaps the Marine had served in Europe at the end of WW2 and picked up ‘trousers’ from British military personnel?

  18. In the final episode of season five (series five to you Brits) of Doc Martin, entitled “Ever After,” the Doc says to a patient, in order to check the patient’s knee, “Go over there and pull down your trousers.” It remains to be seen if this episode 5.8 is also the end of the series in the U.S. sense (i.e., all seasons together).
    I do not know a British term for the collection of all episodes of all series/seasons of a given programme. Given the British predilection for counting collective nouns as plural (https://britishisms.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/plural-verb-for-collective-noun/), perhaps the term I seek is also “series,” making the term ambiguous to us Yanks.

    1. I think we’d definitely go with ‘series’ in Britain.
      Do US TV networks/channels show certain series of programmes at certain times of the year, i.e. in the Summer, Winter, or Autumn (sorry, Fall) ?
      Is that why they’re called ‘seasons’.

      1. Not specifically for each season; though one TV show will begin in January/February and end towards the end of the school year before summer break. Come to think of it, our “Programs” pause usually for spring break and the holidays (not to be confused with what I’ve come to know as British for what the US knows as Vacation).

        It’s strange how tv shows either aire their season once a year or do two seasons once a year. I haven’t sorted that out yet.

        Hopefully this helps.

        Funny enough, in reference to the original topic of “Pants(America)vs Trowsers(British)/trowsus <—-Welsh" I was enlightened to topic on a Welsh group I'm a part of on Facebook [Since we are all learning on Duolingo and or various other methods of learning the language] and was completely shocked at the different connotation of one piece of clothing named meaning something completely different and alarming haha.

        Languages are so wonderful yet so baffling at the same time.

        Historical and geographical context helps as well. The delineation of where one historical tree shows the origin and mutation to the vernacular of a different, usually invading country or a country that absorbs cultures and languages alike.

        Anyway, I digress.

        I am loving the comments and am in high agreement with the poster going by the handle "Muleboy" that these comments are where the party is at!

  19. Re response to John, in response to Julia and to me.

    Language is alive and evolving. Even within this small island, usage will vary by occupation, age, region, education, and other factors.

  20. There is another reference to trousers that just came to me, and that is from Lonnie Donegan’s “My Old Man’s a Dustman” – He wears ‘Cor Blimey Trousers’, which refers to (not seen now since the 1950s!!) men who wear these big heavy corduroy or flannel trousers right up on the hip (even higher than Simon Cowell). Trousers that the teens of the day wouldn’t be seen dead in!

  21. Hm. Maybe I’m the weirdo here, but where I come from, “trousers” is an old-fashioned term for some type of pants that is not produced anymore (I don’t even have a good mental image of them). That the New York Times article is increasing its use of the word “trousers” seems like a confusing backslide into the past. Just what are they talking about, exactly?!! Also, “trousers” doesn’t even sound good. “Slacks” sounds more elegant and are actually distinguishable from everyday pants. “Slacks” are slick formal wear in my area. (“It’s a semi-formal party, so boys should wear collared shirts and slacks…”) “Breeches” are really, really, really not used anymore unless it’s in the context of horseback-riding.

      1. In Canada, nothing’s specific. It’s riding, it’s hockey, it’s skating. Horseback riding, ice skating, and ice hockey? Those are in the realm of the “sitting chair” XD

    1. “Maybe I’m the weirdo here” Yup :>)
      The very word ‘slack’ to me indicates sloppy, ill-fitting, and in the UK generally went out in the 1950s when slacks were then popular.

  22. In the UK – sock suspenders for men (very comical a la Eric Morecambe), stocking suspenders/belt (Phwoar! – if that’s your bag) for women, but trousers for men are held up with braces.:>)

  23. “Breeches” (pronounced britches) is a historical term for the various types of knee-length nether garment, mostly closed below the knee, worn by men for most of the 17th and 18th centuries. They evolved into trousers (full-length, open at the ankle) in the early 19th century. Modern versions are often called knickerbockers, from the name given to an early 20th century revival of the style.
    Kate (Derby, UK)

  24. Trousered can be used as a verb in England. it means to keep some change, or money in a slightly less than honest or honorable way. ” he trousered a hefty commission on the deal”

  25. Very generalised and typical southern ignorance to say pants means something completely different in Britain. It only means something different in southern Britain. In many places up north pants means pants rather than underpants. If someone described something as pants up north it would sound very peculiar and immature

    1. I agree. In the Worth West, “pants” usually means anything that goes on the outside – underpants go underneath. I’m currently reading a book written by somebody born in Preston in the 1920’s. He mentions when he went from “short pants” to “long pants”. When I lived in London,I heard a TV presenter describe Superman as “he’s the one that wears his pants out side his trousers” , which sounded funny to me… Another word is “kecks” which now seems to mean underpants to people in London!

  26. Where I live, underclothes are called underwear/underpants. In Canada, pants are normal everyday pants, trousers are men’s formal “ironed” pants and slacks is the old lady term for women’s formal ironed pants. “Trouser snake” is a pretty awful euphemism XD

  27. Growing up in Scotland in the ’40s/’50s, we referred to long trousers and short trousers. Boys wore short trousers (above the knee) until they were 11 or 12.

  28. To my family and– I think– most of my acquaintances, trousers is just a more formal word for pants. And they’re the ones you put on one leg at a time, since that adds some gravitas to the expression.

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