TT: The Lore of Underwear

Hi Folks…

No, this hasn’t turned into a comparative linguistics site. However, Alan and I

A Confusion of Words

had so much fun last week that we’ve decided to continue sharing our chats as Extras. You might think of them as Thursday Tangents.

If you’re looking for the usual Wednesday Wandering, just go back a page. It’s right there.

If you missed last week, you might want to go to June 1, 2011, “Jumping Jumpers” before reading the following. Or not… As always, it’s up to you.

Now… On to the mysteries of underwear.

JANE: Alan, last time you ended by asking about different American and British uses of the word “vest.”

To quote you: “We use the word ‘vest’ to refer to a sleeveless item worn next to the skin, underneath a shirt or blouse. I have absolutely no idea what you call that. I always get very strange pictures in my head when an actor dresses up to the nines by putting on a vest…”

Okay. Here’s a simple answer. What you folks call a “vest” we call an “undershirt.” Logical and easy, right?

Except that until comparatively recently (as sartorial matters are judged), an “undershirt” was also called a “T-shirt.” If you know anyone who is into medieval costuming, you’ll recognize the similarity to the standard “T-tunic” – a term that comes from the general shape of the garment.

Now, until the 1950’s, only working men and bad boys (think James Dean in the movies) wore their undershirts as upper-shirts. Even workmen only did so when the job was a particularly grungy one.

Then, somewhere in there, the undershirt – T-shirt style – became an acceptable upper-shirt. These days, even a respectable grandmother like my mom will wear an attractive T-shirt as an outer garment. So a T-shirt is no longer an undershirt.

Got that? It gets worse. Not all “undershirts” are “T” styled. There are several sleeveless styles. One of these is what we call a “tank top” for reasons that escape me, since these shirts look nothing like armored personnel carriers or water towers.

Like T-shirts, “tank tops” can be worn as outerwear as well as underwear. However, there is a particular unadorned utilitarian version which, when worn by men, is called a “wife beater.” This term makes my skin crawl, but it seems to be moving into common usage.

The other day I overheard two girls commenting on a group of men. “That one’s pretty cute,” said Girl One. “The one in the blue tee?” asked Girl Two. “No, the one in the wife beater…”


ALAN: Wife beater makes me shiver as well. We do have the term, but it isn’t in common use and I hope it never is. In the Antipodes, sleeveless garments like that are generally known as singlets and they are often the only upper body garment worn by farm labourers and the like as they work all day in the sun. Singlets are traditionally black, goodness knows why, and they leave interesting suntan shapes on the body when removed.

But if we are talking about underwear, there’s the whole pants/trousers thing. To me pants are underwear (underpants is also a commonly used word). But you seem to use the word to refer to the outer garments I call trousers.

So to me Superman wears his pants outside of his trousers. You probably think he wears his underwear outside his pants…

I think we both have the word “panties” (diminutive and possibly feminine, though the idea of language gender has largely vanished from English on both sides of the pond) to refer to underwear worn by women. Am I right in thinking that? Of course, women wear pants as well, and often do. I have no idea where one ends and the other begins.

Talking of underpants, in American novels I’ve often seen the phrase “Fruit of the Loom” and from context it appears to refer to underwear, though I have no idea what it actually means. Is it a brand name? It always makes me think of Adam getting dressed for a hot date with Eve and wearing a bunch of grapes instead of a fig leaf. Sometimes I worry about what is going on inside my head…

JANE: I absolutely love the bit about Superman’s attire. That’s so bizarre as to edge into the philosophical.

Yep. Americans are more likely to say “pants” than “trousers.” In my household, “jeans” are the usual bottomside attire, so neither Jim nor I are likely to use either word in routine conversation. It’s much more likely to be something like “Please don’t put my jeans in the dryer! They’ll shrink.”

Americans have come to use the word “panties” for female undergarments. I love your insight that this is one of the rare cases of gendered language in modern English. Certainly no man I know – even those who prefer slim cut briefs to boxers or loose “jockey shorts” – would refer to their undergarments as “panties.”

I don’t remember “panties” being commonly used when I was a kid, although that might just have been my family.

Fruit of the Loom is indeed a brand name, with “fruit” meaning “product,” not anything else. Really. You’re not too far off with the image of Adam wearing grapes instead of a fig leaf. A few years back, there was an ad campaign that featured a group of men each dressed up as one of the fruit in the Fruit of the Loom logo. For some reason, these became incredibly popular. There were stickers and little figurines. I must admit, the appeal escaped me.

But then American culture is remarkably inside out where such matters are concerned. Women’s underwear advertisements are one step short of porn; men’s underwear is advertised by laughing and dancing fruit.

If you asked the average American who was more prudish, British or Americans, I think the answer would be British. However, from what I’ve seen on some of the BBC programming that has reached here, there’s one area in where you make us seem positively Victorian: Bathroom Humor.

Can you address this without offending the sensibilities of our American readers? Or is that simply impossible?

ALAN: Well, there you go, falling straight into another linguistic trap. To me it would be toilet humour rather than bathroom humour. The British visit the bathroom in order to have a bath. Should they have other purposes in mind, they will use other words. We have quite an extensive vocabulary in this area. We also find bodies and bodily functions endlessly amusing in themselves. It’s required by law, you know. The stories I could tell…

Next time, perhaps?



6 Responses to “TT: The Lore of Underwear”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Hope you’re not getting smoked out by the Wallows Fire in Arizona right now.

    As exposed by the current kerfuffle about Representative Weiner (he certainly picked the *wrong* surname to go with his particular transgression, didn’t he?), I think most Americans find representatives of male genitalia and crotches uncomfortable and disturbing, not photogenic. That’s why we get the silliness with Fruit of the Loom, or those idiotic “two bathtub” commercials for Cialis, and similar visual euphemisms.

    Too bad George Carlin isn’t with us any more. He had a couple of hilarious routines built around the idiocies of American english.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hi heteromeles,

      As to the fire….Some days “yes,” some days, “not so bad.”

      I watch the wind patterns with great attention.

      Today, so far, is a “not so bad…”

  2. Paul Says:

    The term “panties” was used in the late 1950s, but more as a giggle line than anything else. In the book and movie, “Anatomy of a Murder,” the word comes up in the midst of the trial. The judge confers with the lawyers, sees there is no alternative, and tells those attending that the word will be coming up in testimony. The result is a roomful of embarrassed laughter. The judge (played, by the way, by actual lawyer Joseph Welch of the McCarthy hearings fame) then says, in effect, very well, you’ve had your laugh, but this is a serious matter, and any further laughter will result in expulsion from the courtroom. An interesting moment, and rather telling, culturally. (It’s a good movie, by the way. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out.)

  3. Barbara Joan Says:

    Hopefully this time (4th try) I will be able to let you know how much I enjoyed the Americanization Harry Potter. Shared it with my British friend even though I had to copy it and print it. She doesn’t do e-mail.

    She said she really liked it and was sharing it with others.

    Can’t wait to share new language insights with her when we both return from our summer wanderings (She to England and me to VA)

  4. Rowan Says:

    My favorite underwear terminology of recent history: boy shorts. Boy shorts are girls’ underwear, for one. Most of them do not resemble anything an American boy would ever wear, but because they cover more rear and hip, supposedly they’re a little like boxer briefs. Because underwear isn’t confusing enough…

  5. janelindskold Says:

    After Alan and I finished this one, I realized Alan and I had completely forgotten knickers, bloomers, britches, and several other terms.

    Clearly, as Rowan indicated, the potential for further discussion is high.

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