English is a weird language. Back when I was an ESL teacher, I had so many instances where I had to say “just because.” Like, why is it spelled “tough” not “tuff?” And on that same track, why are “tough” and “though” not pronounced the same? Many a student was utterly confused by the rules of English, and TBH—same kid, same.
This also applies to phrases, as well. One that I’ve wondered about recently is why is it called a pair of underwear (I’ve also wondered why do we wear underwear in the first place…tell me you have insomnia without telling me you have insomnia).
But seriously. Why is it called a pair when it’s literally a single item of clothing? (Or, if you’re British, you’ve probably wondered why is it called a pair of pants). I mean, a pair of socks makes sense, but a pair of underwear??
Well, like so many of our traditions, language and customs, the answer can be traced back to… you guessed it, medieval knights. Or maybe you didn’t guess it. Either way, read on and to discover why both men’s underwear styles and women’s underwear styles are always referred to as a pair of underwear.
BEFORE THERE WAS UNDERWEAR
As ubiquitous as underwear seems, it hasn’t always been around, especially not in the form it is now. For hundreds of years, men wore items like loincloths, and women wore shifts–which are basically a long, linen dress to go under your other dress. Talk about breathable underwear, am I right?
Okay, so, how on Earth did we get from loincloths to men’s underwear? Why is it called a pair of underwear? Keep readin’ and we’ll talk it all out.
THE EVOLUTION OF UNDERWEAR
If you’re wondering why is it called a pair of pants (or underwear), it all goes back to medieval times. The term pair of underwear, or pair of pants, or pair of knickers, what have you, comes from the fact that early underwear, worn in medieval times, was two pieces. Yep, you’d pull a piece up each leg, and then tie them together! And that’s your pair.
Fun fact, cod pieces (a flap or pouch that attaches to the front of men’s pants) were also created during this time, as men got annoyed with having to un-lace whenever they needed to relieve themselves.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century and early 20th century that underwear was joined at the waist and the hip, becoming one garment. And from there, underwear became a whole new thing.
UNDERWEAR IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Underwear styles changed a whole lot in the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. Not only did the great joining finally occur (aka the two separate pieces became one), but women started wearing corsets (and can we just say hallelujah those went out of fashion and now we can wear wonderfully comfy things like a hemp bra?).
Women also began to wear bloomers and pantaloons, which were eventually shortened to briefs. Men’s briefs and boxers were invented, the thong as we know it took off in the 1970’s and peaked in the late 1990’s (cue the Thong Song getting stuck in your head for the rest of the day, you’re welcome).
Thanks to all this underwear innovation, after hundreds of years of wearing loincloths, we made leaps and bounds from pairs of underwear that you needed to lace together, to mens boxer briefs, to thongs and then back to high waisted underwear.
And despite all of this, we persist in calling them pairs of underwear. Amongst other things!
THE MEANING BEHIND OTHER WORDS FOR UNDERWEAR
However things have evolved, there are now a ton of different terms for underwear in modern day. But where did they come from? Of course, it depends on where you are and your generation, but here are some familiar terms for underwear, and their origins.
Drawers: prevailing wisdom is that they have to be “drawn” up the legs, hence, drawers.
Knickers/knickerbockers: This term originated with a story written by Washington Irving (in 1809) under the pen name Dietrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker was illustrated as wearing loose breeches that ended at the knee, eventually resulting in these garments using his moniker.
Pants/panties: Pants and panties originate with… a Catholic saint named Pantaleon. He was martyred in the 1st century A.D., but the subject of a cult in Venice hundreds of years later. The men in this cult wore poofy breeches, which were then popularized across the continent as pantalones in Venetian comedies. They were adopted by the French and English as pantaloons, and eventually shortened to pants by none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Since women wore pantaloons under their dresses for a time, they eventually shortened and became panties.
Bloomers: In 1849, Amelia Bloomer popularized loose trousers worn by women (very scandalous at the time), and these became known as “bloomers.” As they shortened over time, they retained the name.
Briefs: Briefs, believe it or not, were invented by a man who saw a postcard of the French Riviera, where men were sporting short, white bathing suits. I guess he thought, "hey, that’s a novel idea!", and turned them into underwear for men.
Butt floss: Thong underwear as we know it (although it has its origins in feudal Japan) was invented in 1974. In the late 1970’s, this style took off on the beaches of Brazil, where it was called fio denta, or dental floss, thanks to the skinny g-string.
Delicates: In response to the suffragette movement, when women were wearing more mannish clothing, many types of women’s underwear became marketed as “feminine” and made with delicate materials like lace.
Union suit: Originally made for women as an alternative to constrictive undergarments; adopted for men as “emancipation under flannel” in 1868, in response to the Civil War.
Tighty whities: A newer term for men’s briefs, first known to be used in the 1990’s.
- Trunks: This term dates back centuries, to when underwear covered the entire “trunk” of your body. Voila, trunks underwear!
Granny panties: This name comes from the classic women’s briefs, which for a while were out of fashion and only worn by, well, grannies.
Unmentionables: Likely got its start in Victorian England, where it wasn’t polite to even mention anything you wore under your clothes anywhere except with the seamstress (and then only ‘cause someone had to make ‘em for ya).
Skivvies: This one so far remains a mystery, but seems like it was a term used in the Navy, starting in the early 20th century. Could be related to a racist term for Japanese, “skibby,” or apparently in England, poorly paid female servants were called “skivvies,” although no one knows why, either. Maybe they’re related and it’s probably totally sexist, but maybe that’s cynical of me…
Manties: A term for men’s underwear that resembles women’s underwear. Male panties. Hey, I don’t make the rules.
THE BEST NEW UNDERWEAR SLANG
In my extensive research on the origins of pairs of underwear, I came across some new slang for underwear, from all over the English speaking world. I’ll leave the list here for you now—and open to your own interpretation.
- Nut huts
- Nut huts
- Banana hammocks
- Butt bags
- Junk trunks
- Grape smugglers
- Oyster catchers
- Manhole covers
- Sausage skins
- Clam openers
- Ginch (blame Canada for that one)
- Underdaks (and Australia for this one)
- Soggy cottonbottoms
- Chamber of secrets
- Butt huggers
- Shreddies (thank you New Zealand)
Although it doesn’t make sense to call them pairs of underwear anymore, I have a feeling that we aren’t going to lose that term any time soon.
So tell me–did the origin of “pairs of underwear” surprise you? And which new slang terms are you going to adopt? I’m partial to nut hut and I’m going to use it until it catches on. You’ll see.
Share yours in the comments! And I also want to know—what do you call your underwear?