trouser pants

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Aug 25 05:55:19 UTC 2005

In today's "Boondocks", Granddad goes shopping with the kids...

Granddad: Boys, I'm tired of you dressin' like hooligans. So I'm pickin'
out all your new school clothes.
Huey: That's okay, Granddad. Really. We can pick out our own clothes.
Granddad: Nonsense! Your granddaddy got great taste! Ascots and trouser
pants for everyone!

I take it "trouser pants" is supposed to be a fuddy-duddyism. But is it
synonymous with "trousers" (in the US sense)? "Trouser(s)" is not part of
my active vocabulary, but Wikipedia provides this helpful gloss:

In North American English, _pants_ is the general category term, and
_trousers_ refers specifically to tailored garments with a waistband and
(usually) belt-loops and a fly-front. Informal elastic-waist knitted
garments would never be called _trousers_ in America.
In British English, _trousers_ is the general category term, and _pants_
refers to underwear (in America, called _underpants_ or _panties_ to
distinguish them from other pants).

So I'm assuming that "trouser pants" is simply a hyponymic compound, where
the hypernym "pants" is qualified by the hyponym "trouser(s)", thus
forming a contrast to non-trouser pants (which Huey and Riley are
presumably wearing). Or is there a semantic nuance I'm missing?

(As for the trans-Atlantic trousers/pants distinction, Mencken quotes
Samuel Butler's memorable pronouncement in his "Psalm to Montreal": "Thou
callest trousers _pants_, whereas I call them _trousers_; therefore thou
art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!")

--Ben Zimmer

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