Having practiced yoga and meditation for over half a century, I tend to be a calm, patient, and unflappable fellow. Few things annoy me.
So, it’s odd that I find it really grating when someone refers to a pair of pants as “a pant.” For me, hearing that is as jarring as nails on a chalkboard.
I will acknowledge that, as a writer, I can be a bit overprotective about the English language in general—and I do have a few other English-related pet peeves—but for whatever reason, I find the term “pant” particularly galling.
The people I’ve heard use this term often strike me as somewhat haughty and pretentious to begin with, which only exacerbates the irritation. Is it really that much effort for them to say “pants” instead of “pant”? It’s not even an additional syllable—just a tiny sibilant sound at the end of the word—curling the tongue a fraction against one’s bottom teeth and emitting the tiniest hint of a hiss. It’s really no work at all. My guess is that it makes some folks feel trendy and smug to leave off that time-honored “s.”
I did a bit of research. A “pair of pants,” or just “pants,” is plural for a reason. There was a time, centuries ago, when each pants leg was a separate garment, and once a person had climbed into both of them, the two pieces were fastened together at the waist. So, it literally was a pair of pants.
And we have other terms in the English lexicon that follow a similar construction. A pair of pliers, a pair of scissors, a pair of binoculars, a pair of tweezers, and on and on. Even if we omit the words “a pair” we still refer to these things in the plural, because, in every case, the item consists of two matching parts that work together.
So there you have it. The argument as I’ve stated it thus far—replete with historical references and congruent examples—that argument represented my well-constructed verdict. I had laid it all out. My thinking was clear and precise. I had proven my case to my complete and utter satisfaction. And if I happened to overhear an uppity designer, or condescending salesperson, use the word “pant”—I could snicker and roll my eyes, confident in my knowledge that they were sadly and utterly wrong.
Until, that is, I happened to read about the etymology of the word “pea.” And that threw all my self-satisfied thinking right down the drain.
Evidently, centuries ago, peas were eaten only as a porridge. The legume itself was referred to as pease, and it was a term much like “oatmeal” or “flour” where the word appears to be singular, but is actually a sort of plural known as a “mass noun.”
When I was a young child, in the 1950’s, this rhyme was popular:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
But pease porridge eventually gave way to other, more sophisticated, culinary variants. And only then, when people began preparing these other dishes, did they start looking for a term to refer to a single one of these little legumes. That’s when the word “pea” emerged. And indeed, the word “pea” was viewed as a grammatically “false singular” for quite some time, until its popularity finally forced its acceptance into proper English.
I’ve used the word “pea” all my life, and have no qualms about using it. So, if I happily accept the word pea, does that mean I now have to accept the word “pant”? Logic, and history, would suggest that I do—and if I don’t, I’ll ultimately come to be seen as an old curmudgeon who can’t change with the times.
I certainly don’t want that.
But hearing the word “pant” still makes me cringe.
It’s quite a dilemma . . .
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