Miles Kington: Don't get your kneepants in a twist

'This is an American garment. Our pants are underwear. Their pants are trousers'
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The Independent Online

A big welcome back today for our language expert Dr Wordsmith, who has been making a special study of the way English has evolved since before Melvyn Bragg was in kneepants. He has dropped in to the office today en route to his favourite research area, the local pub called "The Printer's Eror", in order to pick up his research grant, or what lexicographers call "drinking money". While here, he has agreed to answer your latest batch of queries.


Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was intrigued to spot in your introduction just now a reference to "kneepants". I have often wondered what this elusive garment was, as I have never seen one for sale. Surely a pair of pants that came down to your knees would be far too unwieldy to wear?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Well, whatever they are, they certainly exist, witness the opening lines of the 1930s song "Blues in The Night", which starts: "My momma done tol' me, when I was in kneepants, my momma done tol' me, Son..."

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, but what are kneepants?

Dr Wordsmith writes: All right, hold your horses there! What you have to remember is that this is an American word and an American garment. OUR pants are underwear. THEIR pants are trousers. So theoretically kneepants are knee-length trousers, or what we call "shorts".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And are they?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No idea. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, It seems hard to imagine that a nation as close to us as the Americans should have different garments, but of course they do have Bermuda shorts, the remarkable thing about which is that they are not short at all, and almost reach to the ankles.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Good point. Do you have a question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes. I have sometimes heard Americans refer to underwear as "BVDs". Where does that name come from?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I have no idea.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, have a guess, man! Try and be intelligent about it!

Dr Wordsmith writes: OK, I will. "BVD" sounds to me like an abbreviation. So maybe... Maybe it is a shortened form of "bra, vest and drawers"!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Very clever. Unfortunately, in America "vest" doesn't mean vest. It means waistcoat. The word they use for what we call a "vest" is "undershirt". So the abbreviation should be "BUD" – bra, undershirt and drawers.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Could we have a question which DOESN'T centre on underwear , please?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I have one. Someone once wrote in to ask you what was the word to describe the action of fastening up all your shirt buttons and then discovering you had started with the wrong button in the wrong hole, and you said you didn't think there was a word for this.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, I remember.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, here's another one. Sometimes you find you have buttoned the button of one garment into the button hole of a quite different garment – so, for instance, you might innocently put the bottom button of your shirt into a trouser button hole, or even, now that underpants have their own buttons again...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, yes, I see the way your mind is working.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, is there a word for that?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No. Next, please.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Hold on a moment, hold on! Not so fast! You can't say you don't know the word for some thing and then pass on as if you have answered the question.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Oh, but I did answer the question! I didn't say I didn't know. I said there was no word for it. That is very different. You mustn't assume that there are words to describe everything we do. In fact, a great many of the things we do have no word to describe them.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Such as?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Look, I could devote the whole of one of these columns just to listing human activities which have no name!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Go on, then!

Dr Wordsmith writes: OK, I will. Be here tomorrow at the crack of dawn.


Can Dr Wordsmith really fill this space entirely with activities which have no known description? Let's find out tomorrow!