All that is wrong with the world…

June 30, 2011

Pants vs Underpants

Filed under: Issues...the world...etc.., Travel — Tags: , , , , — allthatiswrong @ 5:51 pm

It always irks me going to the UK hearing underpants referred to just as pants. I know that it’s just a regional difference, but still. It never made sense to me to call underpants pants, and then all pants trousers. Then it came to me…, by limiting the word pants to just underpants, there is then no way to refer to the entire set of non underpants below waist clothes. See, in US English, pants can refer to trousers, jeans, cords, sweatpants, slacks, shorts, parachute pants…whatever. With underpants being clear because they go under pants. With UK English, this doesn’t work. With pants relegated to meaning underwear, there is no word equivalent to pants in US English to refer to pants as a whole. You can refer to trousers as trousers, jeans as jeans and so on, but there is no word to refer to pants as a whole unless you go with trousers, which can be ambiguous. This is obviously a meaningless point as everybody understands each other and this problem never comes up as it is always obvious what is meant in context. Still, I think it’s interesting that one word for underwear can be said to have a disadvantage at all, as more often than not different words have no difference except as a result of perception.


  1. Here’s another one for you then: torch vs flashlight.
    Flashlight being a kind of light, just as underpants are a kind of pants.
    However, a torch is already something else as well… You know, the vintage type, a stick with some cloth and some fuel.

    I think that trying to find the logic in language is sometimes an exercise in futility. A lot of the time it’s just made up as you go along.
    What I wonder though: where did trousers go? Trousers/pants already existed in the time of colonization I suppose, in some way or another. So why do the US speak of pants, and the UK speak of trousers?

    Other things seem more logical, in a way. Like a the hood of a car, vs the bonnet. A car was invented long after the colonization of the US, so there was no ‘direct link’ between the languages anymore.

    In the UK there are actually a lot of other words for underwear as well, which the US never seems to use. Such as Y-fronts, or knickers. Then again, panties is not a word that you’re likely to hear in the UK.
    Oh, and in the UK, ‘pants’ can also be an exclamation, in the sense of ‘shit’, or ‘this sucks’.

    Comment by Scali — July 7, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  2. Hi Scali,

    Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t really expecting anything as this was just a silly conversation I have had several times and thought it might be interesting to get more input.

    I don’t really think torch is to Flashlight as pants is to underpants. Using the word torch doesn’t inhibit the usage of any other words in a different context, while pants used in the British sense does.

    Here in NYC Y-fronts is used although knickers is uncommon, while I have heard panties used in the UK often enough.

    Many of the language differences are meaningless, but I thought pants vs underpants is interesting as you can make an argument against using pants in the British sense that has a valid point.

    Comment by allthatiswrong — July 9, 2011 @ 2:37 am

    • Well, my point was that ‘torch’ can mean different things in different contexts, just like ‘pants’. Only this time it’s the UK English that stuck with the confusing use of ‘torch’, where US English introduced the word ‘flashlight’ to avoid confusion, similar to the use of ‘trousers’ in UK English.
      So, you could have a similar argument against using ‘torch’.

      Personally I don’t understand why something like ‘US English’ even exists in the first place. I mean, obviously people in different regions will use language slightly differently. Even within the UK there are tons of different dialects, with more variation than UK English from US English.
      What’s the point, really?
      I think the US is a tad deluded anyway. I mean, I’m not a native English speaker myself… if I buy a dictionary for English to my language or the other way around, I cannot choose between ‘UK English’ and ‘US English’. There is only ‘English’, and that’s UK English.
      Likewise, in school I was taught ‘English’, which was ‘UK English’. If you accidentally used US English spelling on a test, it was simply wrong, and points were deducted.
      I don’t think anyone outside the US takes ‘US English’ seriously.

      Comment by Scali — July 9, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

      • I do get your point, I just don’t think torch is really analogous to pants, as the word torch doesn’t have the light in it. As it is a type of light, you are not prevented from referring to all lights like you are with pants in UK English.

        As for US English vs UK English…my friend explained it to me that at the time the US was settled, there was no real standard dictionaries. So when the language did start to become standardized, it happened in different ways in both the countries.

        I don’t think it’s fair to say the only English is UK English….the Merriam-Webster dictionary for example tends to use US English, and while the differences are few they can often be significant. It is also important to remember there are potentially more speakers of US English than there are of British English as well as countries like Australia that use a mix.

        You could just as easily say no one outside the UK takes UK English seriously — just a point to consider.

        Comment by allthatiswrong — July 9, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

        • I gave two examples of people outside the UK taking UK English seriously, in my previous reply…

          Comment by Scali — July 10, 2011 @ 3:43 am

        • Oh, and Merriam-Webster is an American organization, so not surprising that they use US English. I don’t think that means anything. As I said, I haven’t seen anyone outside the US referring to anything other than UK English, when saying ‘English’. For us, the two are equivalent (as I said, dictionaries, education…).

          I don’t think it’s relevant that there are more speakers of US English… Most people in the UK don’t exactly speak ‘Queen’s English’ either. As I already said before, there are a lot of dialects in the UK (meaning: a lot of different pronunciations, words and grammars). The difference is that these are not formalized in the way that US English is. Officially their language is all UK English, even though they may not actually use it in daily life, except for a small minority.
          Which is strange, since the US only speaks English because the settlers from England introduced the language there. It was UK English at one point.
          I just don’t get why they ‘forked’ the language at one point. US English is nothing more than a dialect, and not even a strong one, compared to all the other dialects that exist in English. What is the point in saying that spelling ‘colour’ as ‘color’ is suddenly correct? I don’t see the point. Nothing that a bit of education couldn’t fix.

          Comment by Scali — July 10, 2011 @ 4:15 am

          • I think you need to read up on Noah Webster :

            American English is what it is because it was standardized and because of the pioneering work Webster did. The dialects within the UK do not differ nearly as much as US english does from UK English, generally consisting of only a few additional or substituted slang words. US English differs from UK English with spelling, definitions and grammar, so I would say it is significant.

            While it is true the when the US was settled they spoke UK English, this changed, again in part because of the work of Webster, whose dictionary dominated the English world at one point.

            I also disagree with your point that UK English is just English. US English is just English more often than UK English. Just as you grew up with UK English only being called English, Americans, Canadians and other nationalities grew up with US English simply being called English. If you were to use British spellings or words in a US English test, you would fail, as they would simply be wrong.

            While they are not two different languages, they are significantly different in many ways.

            Comment by allthatiswrong — July 10, 2011 @ 11:06 am

            • I disagree, the stronger dialects in the UK certainly have their own spelling, definitions and grammar. And yes, they DO differ more than US English from UK English.
              Take the dialect spoken in the Black Country for example:
              That goes a lot further than US English.

              My point was a fact: English *is* UK English here. I reiterate: I do NOT live in an English-speaking country. That is the point I’m making.
              You are only arguing from the inside. Sure, the US/Canada will automatically think that US English is English, that’s a given. Same for the UK. I was talking about how the outside world views the two. I only know of cases where UK English is considered ‘the’ English language, to non-English speakers.
              I don’t think you quite got that point the first time.

              Comment by Scali — July 10, 2011 @ 11:48 am

              • Here’s some Black Country phrases:
                Still think US English differs more from UK English?
                I would go as far as saying that anyone who can understand UK English, will understand US English as well, without any hassle. You may miss a few words here and there, but nothing big.
                But Black Country dialect? I doubt it. Most of the time you can’t make heads or tails of what they’re saying.

                Comment by Scali — July 10, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

              • OK, yes I do know how different some of the dialects in the UK can be (as well as with in the US), what I should have said is that none of them are on the same scale as US English. That’s the difference.

                Thanks for clarifying your point, although I disagree. I’m certainly not arguing from the inside, as I am not from the US or the UK, but have lived in both places. If you want to argue from the outside, then you can still not simply say UK English *is* English. It depends on the history, and which nation influenced their language. Take the Philippines for example, US English is English there, certainly not UK English.

                The point I am making is that UK English is not simply English. There are multiple dialects and it depends where you are as to which one is considered correct. UK English is no more objectively correct than US English.

                Comment by allthatiswrong — July 10, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

                • “The point I am making is that UK English is not simply English. There are multiple dialects and it depends where you are as to which one is considered correct. UK English is no more objectively correct than US English.”

                  Well, the problem there is that you base your point on the assumption that both UK English and US English are valid dialects in the first place.
                  Since I argue that it is pointless to have multiple ‘official’ versions of English, clearly your entire point cannot be made in the first place. I don’t see why both UK English and US English should exist alongside. So I don’t see a point in a debate over the validity of both of them.

                  Not that I am implying that UK English is ‘better’ than US English… I just think it’s silly to have two… Why couldn’t they just standardize a single ‘English’ together? (Yes I know, revolutionary war and all… but still… that’s ancient history, get over yourselves).

                  Comment by Scali — July 10, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  3. In the UK we say Horse Riding, while in the States it is Horse Back Riding. Why the need to add ‘back’ when it is quite obvious that is where you have to be to ride the horse?

    Torch and Flashlight isn’t really confusing. Torch was used when they were made of stick and fire, this carried on to flashlight in UK English as it does the same thing and it replaces the old. Such as the word dial tone is still in use even though we don’t use a dial on the phone. The modern way replaced the old way but the old words still hold true for the new device that replaced the old.

    Comment by Boris — January 5, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

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