Having worked wild shifts and from home, I am a big believer in the post-work ritual that draws a line under the workday and declares that home time has begun. Mine usually involves a loud proclamation about the needlessness or evilness of wearing pants. It’s not the pants’ fault really, it’s just that I need to shut out the world. And just like me, people the English-speaking world over have ascribed deep meaning to these ubiquitous ass-huggers. Let’s look at how.
Pants, as you probably know, is a short form of pantaloons, from the Italian word pantelone. You might not know Saint Pantaleone was a Christian doctor condemned to death by the Romans in the third century for helping the poor. He was sentenced to beheading but survived six attempts on his life. The Italians borrowed two Greek words Pan (all) and leo (lion) to describe his largesse and dumb luck, and he became a popular character in plays – a sort of holy fool who would wear long, thin trousers over his comically skinny legs.
In the UK, underpants were shortened to pants, so the word means both your trousers and what you wear under them. By extension, you will hear Brits talk use pants to mean bad quality or unenjoyable – as in “this band is pants.” And you may have been unfortunate enough to discover the verb form to pants someone, if your elementary school class was as juvenile as mine. Ironically, if something is the pants, it means it’s quite good. English, eh?
Some of our pants-related expressions are obvious: to wear the pants, which mercifully seems to be dropping out of usage, is about being the “man” in the relationship and therefore making decisions on behalf of the family. A kick in the pants seems an apt description for something disappointing or painful to accept.
But to fly by the seat of your pants – meaning to act by feel, intuition or guesswork instead of measurement – comes to us from the aviation industry.
Quoting a Popular Science magazine article from 1929, Stack Exchange user StoneyB says: “When my senses tell me one thing and the little dials on the instrument board tell me another, usually the dials are right. Next to the instruments, probably the pilot’s safest guide to the position of his ship is the seat of his pants.”
The other meaning of pant, to breathe quickly and excitedly, came not from the sound of a dog doing the same (as I had assumed) but from a guess at the cause of the panting. To pant comes (via the French pantaisier) of the Greek word phantasioun, meaning cause to imagine. It has the same root as fantasy, one of those things that may cause you to pant.