Errors & Omissions: Who wears the trousers in the British-American relationship?


This column does not go on about "Americanisms". How could anyone who has read, say, The Great Gatsby entertain for a moment the snobby idea that American English is some crude, bastardised colonial offshoot of "our" great language?

However, that said, consistency demands that a British newspaper stick to British English; that we refer to "petrol", not "gasoline", and write "got" not "gotten" (Shame! I like "gotten"); and that we maintain and defend the present perfect tense ("He has gone") against being subsumed by the past simple ("He went"). That last one I do feel strongly about: to write "He isn't here; he went already" is to impoverish the language.

Anyway, I was surprised by the vehemence of the reaction around The Independent's Comment desk to the following, which appeared in a news story on Tuesday: "Out from behind the drape jumped a man in a white shirt and khaki pants."

Pants! Pants are gentlemen's underwear, my outraged colleagues insisted. The man was wearing khaki trousers. They are right, of course, though an Irish colleague contributed the information that "pants" is the invariable usage not just in America but in Ireland too.

Now, that is interesting and strange, because the Shorter Oxford suggests that the word "trousers", dating from 1599, may actually be descended from the Irish or Scots Gaelic word triubhas – see also the Scots "trews". "Pants", on the other hand, is a 19th-century short form of "pantaloons", the kind of trousers worn by the traditional Italian comedy character Pantalone (Shakespeare's "lean and slippered pantaloon").

By the way, that "drape" should be a curtain.

Royal style: There seems to be a strange problem with the titles of some royal ladies. Thursday's diary reported on a Buckingham Palace garden party: "Kate Middleton was permanently hidden behind a crush of guests." Everybody seems to call the Duchess of Cambridge by her unmarried name.

Twenty years ago, millions of people refused to use the proper style of Prince William's late mother and insisted on calling her "Princess Diana". In that case, of course, many of them were making a point. To this day, those who took her side in the break-up of her marriage sentimentalise over Princess Diana, while those who sympathised with the Prince of Wales refer, with icy correctness, to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Happily, there is nothing like that about the "Kate Middleton" business. I suspect that people, having got to know her by that name, simply see no reason to change – especially when the title "Duchess of Cambridge" is easily confused with that of her stepmother-in-law, the Duchess of Cornwall. There is nothing wrong with a diary item following popular taste, but let's hope the news pages stick to the proper style.

Homophone horror: Peter Henderson writes in to point out this, from a news story about the Leveson Inquiry, published on Thursday: "Jeremy Hunt is due to give evidence about his roll in the takeover bid."

Oddly enough, "roll" and "role" are the same word. A roll is anything rolled up, such as parchment. A role is a roll on which is written the part to be played by an actor. The spellings are different because "roll" came from French to English in the Middle Ages, but "role" didn't arrive until the 17th century.

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