“Knickers in a twist (or knot)”

A cartoon by Ming

Faithful reader Hall Hall sends a link to a Cnet.com article that begins “Verizon Wireless’s new family share plan has gotten lots of knickers in knots. But is the new plan really as bad as some people fear it is for consumers?”

Hal asks: “A Britishism (or an Americanism)?”

My answer … wait for it … an Americanism!

Here’s the deal. Knickers in a twist is indeed a Britishism, derived from the British sense of knickers as (in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition) “A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.” The twisty figure of speech first appeared in the U.K. in 1967, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, quickly gained popularity through the mid-1980s, and has leveled off since then. In the U.S., by contrast, the phrase’s popularity grew quite gradually through the early ’90s, when it took off; it’s now used more here than here. A proper NOOB indeed. Here are the charts.

U.S. use of “knickers in a twist,” 1964-2008
British use of “knickers in a twist.” 1964-2008

Here is the thing. The red line in both charts represents relative use of knickers in a twist. But you’ll notice that the American chart has a blue line. That represents use of knickers in a knot–it first shows up in 1968 and has slowly risen ever since. In the British chart, knickers in a knot is a pure flat line, suggesting it has never been used.

Why did Americans make up knickers in a knot? Is it because we are partial to alliteration? Is it because we are unaware of the original meaning of knickers and hence don’t realize the physical impossibility of them getting knotted up on their own?

I have no idea and hence I’m not going to get my bowels in an uproar over it.

Do they say that in the U.K.?

19 thoughts on ““Knickers in a twist (or knot)”

  1. I have never heard `bowels in an uproar’ in the UK. It certainly sounds uncomfortable, although not physically impossible, which is the point of `knickers in a twist’.

  2. From the NE U.S. and I’ve never heard Knickers in a Knot around here. It’s definitely “Knickers in a twist”. Also have heard “panties in a bunch”.

  3. Knickers in a twist is much more UK 80’s than UK 60’s and I was living there in both eras.

    now commonly used as a male put down of women – ie contemporary meaning of knickers ( panties) rather than OED’s definition.

  4. Agree. Same here in NE U.S. Used as a derogatory expression, as a put-down. The only people I’ve encountered using it in the last decade are male narcissists. Sadly I’ve run into too many.

  5. same here Judith. (NE USA). in the last decade it’s become a derogatory expression as a put-down of women. A favorite of male narcissists in particular.

    1. if used about a man it is even more of a put down as it is lowering him to (gasp) to the level of a neurotic female.

  6. As a native Pennsylvanian, and a 14-year resident of upstate NY, I recall hearing “Don’t get your knickers in a twist” from time to time, as they say, “back in the day.” Then, I clearly understood it as a Britishism. I don’t recall having heard it, however, but maybe once or twice, in the more than three decades I’ve lived in Texas.
    “Knickers in a knot,” on the other hand, was but vaguely familiar when I read it online the other day, which is what prompted me to ask. Thanks, Ben, for being curious enough to investigate.
    This American, by the way, is “partial to alliteration,” as you suggest, and “knickers in a knot” is something I might have come up with on my own had I a reason and the opportunity.

  7. I have always associated “knickers in a twist” with British usage, maybe because I first heard it from the same person who suggested that someone was getting “shirty.” Americans seem to be expanding on the theme of uncomfortable undergarments causing mental distress by referring to “undies in a bunch.” Like “knickers in a twist,” “undies in a bunch” has the euphonious repetition of the vowel sound.

  8. ‘Knickers’ are any south-of-the-waist undergarments – ‘panties’ or ‘briefs’ are close synonyms – though not so often shorts. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist’ doesn’t have any sexist connotations that I’m aware of.

  9. Knickers, in BE, are pretty much female garments, and not used for sportswear. I think the phrase was first popularised by the TV comedian Franky Howerd, recently deceased. It does tend to be used by by men and to women, and is often followed by “dear”, which adds to the sexist put-down.

  10. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist’ doesn’t have any sexist connotations that I’m aware of.

    Ah, but you wouldn’t be, on account of male privilege. We should probably be using “boxers in a bunch”. “Panties in a wad” is the American version I’m familiar with from the interwebs.

  11. As a Brit, I would say that it’s probably used more from one guy to another these days, even though knickers are an exclusively female garment.

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