Pair (of pants, etc.)

Two to tango.

Dear Word Detective: We live in the country and have a pond nearby, so I purchased some inexpensive binoculars to watch egrets, herons, beavers and the other wildlife. I emailed a friend telling him that we’d bought a pair of binoculars and asked parenthetically why we call them a pair when there’s only one. He shot back: FOR THE SAME REASON WE CALL THEM A PAIR OF PANTS (he likes to shout in his emails.) So why do we call them pairs — binoculars, pants, glasses, shorts and probably others — when they’re single units? — Barney Johnson.

Although your friend types in annoying capital letters, he is essentially correct in his answer, and “a pair of pants” is a good illustration of this peculiar “pair” phenomenon.

What we now call “pants” or “trousers” were originally known as “pantaloons,” after Pantalone, a stock character in 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte (theatrical comedy) usually portrayed as an old man wearing short, baggy pants. The Anglicized form “pantaloon” soon appeared in English meaning “a foolish old man” (as in Shakespeare’s “lean and slippered pantaloon” from As You Like It), but the term was also applied to the Pantalone style of trousers, eventually giving us the shortened form “pants.” But “pants” in the 16th century differed from today’s jeans in that each leg was a separate garment, donned in succession and then belted together at the waist. Thus it made sense to call these “two-piece britches” a “pair” of pants, and the usage stuck long after pants were unified. We speak of “a pair” of shorts or swimming trunks because of the precedent set by “pants.”

In the case of “a pair of binoculars,” the progression from separate to unified was much quicker, but “pair” still stuck. “Binoculars” were developed within just a few years of the invention of the first telescope in the early 17th century, when folks realized that a “binocular” (literally “two-eyed”) view through a telescope would be better than the close-the-other-eye-and-squint method. So they literally bolted two small matched telescopes together, and the “binocular telescope” was born. “Pair of binoculars” makes even less sense than “pair of pants,” since “binocular” already contains the concept of “two,” but that’s English for you. Oddly enough, the “monocular” (“mono” meaning “one”), a single small telescope (also known today as a “spotting scope”) wasn’t called that when “binoculars” were invented, and the term “monocular” didn’t come into use until the early 20th century. Speaking of “monocular” brings us to the “monocle,” a single corrective lens worn squeezed between the brow and cheek, fashionable in the 19th century. The past popularity of the lone monocle is the reason we find it necessary to speak of a “pair of glasses” today.

There are other “pairs” out there, including some that have never been used in single form, such as “tongs,” “tweezers” and “scissors,” but in such cases “pair” simply carries the sense of something made of two joined or corresponding parts, both of which are needed for the thing to function.

7 comments on this post.
  1. Ray Hathaway:

    To the Word Detective: Do you speak from “facts” or do you gather your information and entries much like Wikipedia? Specifically you write:

    “”But “pants” in the 16th century differed from today’s jeans in that each leg was a separate garment, donned in succession and then belted together at the waist. Thus it made sense to call these “two-piece britches” a “pair” of pants…””

    In all the images that are on the web I can’t find one where the Pantalone character dons anything close to a two piece, chap-like, garment. As a matter of fact, any pantaloons image I find, antique, new; male, female, shows nothing other than a one piece garment. The only reference to a two piece, pant-like apparel item is, in fact, CHAPS.

    You seem to speak with authority on this subject so if you don’t mind would you please email me a link to something that backs up your assertion on this page? I mean, if I’m wrong in my thinking, I need to stop disseminating false info. Thanks. Ray H.

  2. beatrice:

    I would to know whether they re a pair of shorts. Is right in Grammar or diction.

  3. tambria moore: The HOSE worn by men were at first two separate pieces, but as time went by, the two hose were joined, first in the back then across the front. It became necessary (and required by the CHURCH) for men to have a ?codpiece.?

  4. Fleur:

  5. JD:

    Ray – Get a life. Geez dude.

  6. Emma:

    As English is my second language, I have always been intrigued by the words ‘a pair of’… trousers, glasses, shorts etc. In my native tongue (Dutch) this is not used at all; a pair of pants would mean 2 pairs of pants, each with two legs ;-).
    Be that as it may, back to the English explanation of a pair of trousers being two separate entities tied at the waist. I vaguely remember, many years ago, reading a historical novel where reasons for the separated trousers for men, and similarly, bloomers for women, were explained thus: Due to the dearth of toileting facilities and the voluminous clothing worn in those days, it was easier to just stand at the gutter in the street with legs spread apart and let go. (always with one eye on the windows above for maids emptying the night chamber!
    I have not seen an explanation like this, anywhere, why?

  7. Rg:

    Perfectly legitimate request! I, too, would like to see a citation for what sounds like a very reasonable explanation. I just visited another site researching this same question and saw.a lot of people blathering on about different theories of the origin of this phrase. Much of what they said sounded possible, but no one cited sources. Finally I just gave up and wound up here. This looks like a better place to get an answer, but what is wrong with a citation?

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