Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we've got our pants in a twist…
Q: Hi AWC, we had an email from Gerard a while ago. He asked: “Pyjama pants or pyjama pant?” But first, what’s the go with how to spell this item of clothing in the first place?
A: Yes, let’s start with that. The article(s) of clothing in question, usually reserved for sleep, rainy day TV show binge watching and (when accompanied by ugg boots) late night trips to the ice-cream section of the supermarket.
Q: Yes, that’s the one.
A: Well Americans spell them “pajamas” and the rest of the world goes with “pyjamas” – including Australia.
Q: So who’s right? Surely the origin of the word will tell us?
A: Curiously, it’s one of the only English words to have borrowed from Hindu (and Persian before then). And the jury is still out, because they spelt it as “pay-jama”.
Q: Hmmm, might have to stick to calling them PJs then…
A: The pay-jama was a drawstring set of loose fitting trousers. The East India Company went on to steal the idea in the 1800s and bring it to England – where the name now usually means both the shirt and trousers.
Q: Okay, so now to Gerard’s dilemma – is it “pyjama pants” or a “pyjama pant”?
A: It helps to know where the word “pants” comes from.
A: The 1600s name for long pants – “pantaloons”.
Q: What a silly word.
A: Yes, it’s mostly obsolete these days. But “pants” was the original short version – in the mid 1800s. Then, in the 1890s, the act of describing the entire garment as a singular “pant” was first recorded.
Q: So why did that catch on?
A: Possibly because saying “pants” instead of “pantaloons” was still a relatively new thing. And to be fair, it’s only really one industry that likes to call the whole thing a pant.
A: The fashion industry of course. It became vogue to call something “a well-made pant” to give it a singular entity – like a shirt or so on. Someone may ask for your “pant size” when “pants size” is perfectly fine.
Q: So you have two pant legs, and when you stitch them together, you get “a pair of pants”.
A: Exactly, and last we checked, that was the better way to wear pants. So we advise that using “pants” is the way to go – and leave “pant” for the fashionistas.
Q: And dogs.
A: Oh, well yes, dogs pant when they get hot.
Q: No, I mean that my Sheltie looks rather fetching in a well cut pant.
A: Right, okay.
Q: And finally, what does it mean when British people say something is “pants”?
A: Ah yes, a loveable slice of slang – with pants meaning “rubbish”. It originated from UK schoolboys around 1900.
Q: Do you think it’s time to say goodnight to this pyjama party?
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!