Garment vocabulary

What do you call an outer garment covering the body from the waist to the ankles, with a separate part for each leg? The referentially and socioculturally least restricted lexical item for this purpose, in both AmE and BrE, is the plural noun trousers. (The gloss in my first sentence is in fact the definition of trousers given, without restriction, in NOAD.)

It’s then remarkable that the Quite Interesting Twitter account maintained on 8/14/18 that

The Victorians thought the word ‘trousers’ so vulgar and rude that they used euphemisms such as ‘sit-upons’, ‘inexpressibles’, ‘unutterables’ and ‘unwhisperables’ instead.

The result of such an attitude would have been that there was literally no everyday expression to refer to such a garment — even one originating as a euphemism but naturalized as ordinary vocabulary — as has been the case for white meat as a replacement for (chicken) breast, for some speakers, and in many other cases.

That’s the usual course of development for an expression that has become tabooed because of sociocultural discomfort with one of its referents: it drops out of general use and is replaced by one of its euphemisms, which is then in effect promoted to become the new everyday, and relatively innocent, vocabulary for the referent. (For a time, at any rate.)

Unease with women’s breasts led to bosom and bust taking over as polite terms for the female anatomy, and white meat taking over as a polite term for chicken breast.

It’s not clear to me what the claim is about trousers in Victorian times. The garment in question was worn almost entirely by men at the time; it was everyday wear for men in general; and it served as an outer shell for undergarments protecting the male genitals– three facts that could lead sensitive folk to find it uncomfortably masculine and carnal. However, according to all accounts I’ve seen, trousers was the everyday term for the garment. Indeed, several histories of clothing in the period note that Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward Prince of Wales (who would become Edward VII, and who gave his name to the Edwardian fashion period) is credited for setting the tone for men’s trousers (under that name) in the modern era: he introduced trouser cuffs to lift the trouser hem above the dirt and popularized trouser creases.

The claim in Quite Interesting then looks like sheer invention, or the passing-on of popular lore that has grown up around what’s been called by some the myth of Victorian repression.

The modern garment and its names. Some entries from NOAD:

noun trousers:  (also a pair of trousers) an outer garment covering the body from the waist to the ankles, with a separate part for each leg. [the most neutral lexical item, used in both AmE and BrE, and in formal as well as informal contexts; also for both men’s and women’s garments and for garments made of a variety of fabrics]

noun pants: 1 chiefly North American trousers: baggy corduroy pants … 2. British informal rubbish; nonsense: he thought we were going to be absolute pants. [1 is the relevant sense, and it’s marked as chiefly North American]

noun breeches [variant spelling britches]: [a] short trousers fastened just below the knee, now chiefly worn for riding a horse or as part of ceremonial dress. [b] informal trousers. [b is the relevant sense, and it’s marked as informal]

pl. noun jeans: hard-wearing trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric, for informal wear. See also blue jeans. [a subtype of trousers]

Two exemplars:

— L.L. Bean Men’s Maine Guide wool trousers, in rear view (the company refers to it as a pant — using North American pants, in the sg. a pant, the sg. usage being common in commercial garment language for bipartite garments):


— J.Crew Edie full-length trousers in four-season stretch (the company uses trouser, in the sg.):


The source of the Quite Interesting claim. The authoritative tone of the QI claim led some participants in the 2018 FB discussion to conclude that the claim was a quotation from some reputable source, in particular the OED. I then pursued that idea; my report (edited for format):

no, this quotation is not in the OED, under trousers, breeches, or any of the euphemisms the OED lists “for breeches or trousers” — inexpressibles, ineffables, inexplicables, unmentionables. Sit-upons is in the OED as “colloq. trousers, breeches”, but it’s not marked as a euphemism (it could be merely jocular) and is not given with the quotation. Unutterables is defined as ‘trousers’ and is not marked as a euphemism, but it’s linked to unmentionables; the quotation is not given. Unwhisperables is merely listed as “slang” for ‘trousers’; the quotation is not given.

So: nothing substantial there.

And then Quite Interesting confessed:

Thanks to everyone who’s responded to this – we’re aware that many Victorians continued to use the word tr***ers, but merely wanted to highlight some of the amusing euphemisms that also sprang up at the time.

That is, their crucial claim was invention. In fact, they were merely passing on unexamined popular lore — as in this piece on “Unmentionables” on the website of The virtual linguist (Susan Harvey / Susan Purcell) on 2/9/11:

Language always reflects the society around it, and thus we find that the Victorian moral values of the 19th century were also reflected in the language. The Victorian era saw a number of euphemisms enter the language as prissiness forbade people to utter certain words. For instance, ‘roach’ began to mean ‘cockroach’ in the 19th century; as one of the OED citations (from 1837) says: “‘Cock-roaches’ in the United States‥are always called ‘roaches’ by the fair sex, for the sake of euphony”.

Even the word ‘trousers’ was too shocking to say, so a number of different euphemisms for these garments were coined in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Apart from unmentionables, there’s also: inexpressibles, ineffables, inexplicables, indescribables, etceteras, indispensables, unimaginables, innominables, unwhisperables, unutterables, unprintables and never-mention-’ems, plus the rhyming slang round-me-houses, and many other euphemisms in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Trousers seem to inspire people to create new words. When I was growing up in Liverpool, we called them kecks. The OED says that word most likely comes from ‘kick’; kickseys, in fact, was another Victorian synonym for trousers. [Sets of synonyms and the introduction of new synonyms are both common phenomena, but have no special connection to taboo avoidance and euphemisms; indeed, many synonyms are slang, sometimes impolite.]

Victorian morality. From Wikipedia:

Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of the middle class in 19th-century Britain, the Victorian era.

Victorian values emerged in all classes and reached all facets of Victorian living. The values of the period — which can be classed as religion, morality, Evangelicalism, industrial work ethic, and personal improvement — took root in Victorian morality. Current plays and all literature — including old classics like Shakespeare — were cleansed of naughtiness, or “bowdlerized”.

Contemporary historians have generally come to regard the Victorian era as a time of many conflicts, such as the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint, together with serious debates about exactly how the new morality should be implemented.

… Historians Peter Gay and Michael Mason both point out that modern society often confuses Victorian etiquette for a lack of knowledge. For example, people going for a bath in the sea or at the beach would use a bathing machine. Despite the use of the bathing machine, it was still possible to see people bathing nude. Typical middle-class brides likely knew nothing about sex and learned about their husbands’ expectations for it on their wedding night; the experience was often traumatic. Contrary to popular conception, however, Victorian society recognised that both men and women enjoyed copulation.

Verbal or written communication of sexual feelings was also often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers. However, they also wrote explicit erotica, perhaps the most famous being the racy tell-all My Secret Life by the pseudonym Walter (allegedly Henry Spencer Ashbee), and the magazine The Pearl, which was published for several years and reprinted as a paperback book in the 1960s. Victorian erotica also survives in private letters archived in museums and even in a study of women’s orgasms. Some current historians now believe that the myth of Victorian repression can be traced back to early twentieth-century views, such as those of Lytton Strachey, a homosexual member of the Bloomsbury Group, who wrote Eminent Victorians.

A different basis for avoiding trousers. From the 2018 FB dscussion:

Lori Moon: Apparently this discomfort [it turns out to be discomfort, but not this discomfort] with the word is still alive. We heard a boy’s mother say “change your trousers” and the boy was incredibly embarrassed and said, “Mom, don’t call them trousers in front of my friends.” To which another boy said, “I’m not your friend anymore.” We’ve been laughing about the episode, but maybe there’s something disturbing about the word to some people — At least to some Victorians and contemporary middle school boys.

Arnold Zwicky: What’s the context for this story? What sort of people, where, when? I ask because I’ve never heard of such discomfort in modern times. What I do hear is discomfort with the word PANTS for reference to trousers — because PANTS also refers to underpants, and underpants / drawers / etc. is a taboo topic. (BrE in general doesn’t use PANTS to refer to trousers, so the discomfort is very strong there, but I’ve seen it in the US as well as the UK. For AmE speakers who are uncomfortable with PANTS ‘trousers’, the word TROUSERS is then the euphemism.) By the way, if an American child objects to TROUSERS as a “bad word”, what word does the child use to refer to these garments?

Lori Moon: It was here in Urbana Illinois, recently. The boys embarrassed by the word were 13, white, at least 3rd generation in the US, multi-generational household, relatively high SES. They were happy with “pants” instead or “jeans”. It’s the first time I’d ever heard of embarrassment over the word. Also, for context, the kid who said “I’m not your friend anymore”, who told the story to my son, was completely confused by the interaction —   that’s how the story spread. The best insights I’ve gotten are that it sounds nerdy or stodgy to the kids, not so much dirty.

Word aversion proceeds on many grounds, taboo avoidance being only one of them.



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