Sunday, April 17, 2011

Underwear, Knickers and Pants

Americans don’t wear knickers.  They just have underwear.  And they wear their pants over their underwear, which kind of makes sense.  Except that I am British.  So underwear, knickers, and pants are all essentially the same thing.  Although having said that, knickers are normally female in the UK, whereas underwear and pants can be for either sex.

Yes, I am getting my knickers in a twist over the differences between American and British English again!

British pants were not always underpants.  When I was a child the word “pants” was normally used to refer to any sort of long trousers, the same way that the Americans use the word.  It didn’t matter what they were made of, denim, tweed, or cotton, as long as they started at your waist and covered your ankles, they were pants.  Then, during the 1990s, something rather strange happened.  Suddenly British people started using the word “pants” to mean underpants.  If you used the word in the old sense, to mean any type of long trousers, people would snigger at you, as if you were committing some enormous “faux pas”, when all you were actually doing was using the same word that everyone had always used in the past. 

My brother lived in Germany during the 90s and returned home to Britain to find that people were giggling when he talked about his pants.  I have the opposite problem to my brother.  I have to keep reminding myself that when Americans refer to their pants, they are not discussing their knickers.

I guess this sort of thing has happened before.  I mean, I remember my grandmother referring to my footwear as “stockings” instead of “socks” when I was a child.  I have no idea when the sock/stocking change happened but it clearly took place during my grandmother’s lifetime, but before mine.

As Americans don’t use the word, “knickers”, I’ll leave you with some of its uses, other than meaning an item of underwear.

1.  “Knickers!” exclaimed can mean “Rubbish!” or “Nonsense!”

2.  It can also mean, “Oh sod it!” and you can say “Knickers to that!” when you are fed up with continuing something.

3.  The phrase: “Don’t get your knickers in a twist!” means don’t get unduly stressed out.


  1. We literally just had this convo this morning! We knew knickers were for women, but not sure 'who wore the pants', so to speak. Thank you for clearing this up.

    In reply to your comment on my post - it has been really sunny and no rain in forever here. -L

  2. I didn't realize that the underwear/pants change happened in the 90s, thought it was always that way! Too funny. Thanks for the low down :)

  3. Ha ha once again you make me laugh. I love it because the similarities between the Brittish and Australian are very close indeed. I imagine myself in your shoes :-)

  4. This might, or might not, help


    I spent all afternoon
    looking through
    my knicker drawer;
    problem was
    none of them were suitable.

    I had to disqualify
    those with holes in the backside,
    white ones - too plain,
    those which played music when squeezed,
    or with pictures of Fred Flintstone,
    or which said Glentoran Football Club,

    and the ones I was keeping as souvenirs,
    a thong that got left behind when she left,
    the lace ones I bought her for Christmas,
    and the ones she said were her favourite.

    It is clearly impossible
    to be a super-hero
    if you have no knickers
    to wear on the outside.

  5. I like the word "knickers". For women, we usually say "panties", and for men "underwear". We also say "don't get your panties in a wad" for don't get upset over it. Some people still call them "drawers" over here.
    In any case, it won't matter much in the summer because people in the South go about in all sorts of states of undress. *grin*
    In Athens, GA, the UGA students, especially the female ones, seem to be unable to ride a bike downtown or go running on campus without showing the cheeks of their ass (bum). You can always tell the tourists from the locals because the tourists, especially males, drive a lot slower in the summer.
    Where's the FB "like" button?

  6. Is it wrong that my 6 year old daughter sometimes calls her underwear undercrackers? It is my fault and I blame the fact I am Scottish. My kids friends are used to them saying weird things so no problem there, but it is when I refer to them as that that the weird looks really start! :D

  7. Great post Paul... and David. Good topic to clarify!

  8. That's underpants sorted out - now, if only I work out the rules for tipping people in bars and restaurants... ;-)

  9. PS I put the Facebook like button in the toolbar on the right, but people keep telling me they can't find it! I used a pic of sheep rather than an alligator, which maybe confuses more!

  10. Amercians definitely do not speak the same language as us Brits. Even FB distinguishes between American and British English :)