a jean/a trouser/a short? [AE]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by romina_arena, May 2, 2009.

  1. romina_arena Member

    Hi people,
    I'm an English teacher from Argentina, and lately I've been watching TLC's "What not to wear" a lot. I've found that the hosts say "a jean" or "a trouser" or "a short" many times when refering to "jeans" and "trousers". Given that this is incorrect use of the language, I've decided to post this question here: Is the use of jean, trouser and short in singular getting into the language, or is it just these people speaking incorrect English? This really bugs me because they are the only people I've heard saying that. I'm trying to get some videos from youtube to gather evidence. A friend has also heard it on the show many times, but when we asked a British girl, she said that it was not used at all in England, that it was incorrect. So, we were wondering if maybe it's getting into American English only?

    <Moderator note: directions to YouTube add nothing to this post. The issue has been clearly stated.>

    I'd be very grateful if someone can help us.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2009
  2. ATLGradStudent Senior Member

    Decatur, GA
    English - American
    I have heard that a number of times myself and also find it incredibly annoying. Most people never say that. It seems to be limited to a rather small group of people -- those obsessed with fashion and sounding hip and those who absorb the show without thinking.

    Regardless, it seems an obvious attempt to find a singular form for these words that would parallel the garments that go on the upper half of our bodies: a shirt, a jacket, a hat. The precedent for using the plural for pants, shorts, jeans, slacks, and trousers is long-standing and I doubt it is going anywhere any time soon.
  3. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    It seems to be common in the clothing trade to refer to what I would call "a pair of shorts" as "a short", or to what I would call "a pair of pants" as "a pant" (and please note that in AE, "pants" does NOT mean "underwear"!!!) You will see these singular terms used in clothing catalogues, but I think in common spoken language most speakers of American English who are not in the clothing trade would find the idea of wearing "a trouser" or "a short" to be bizarre, and to mean that the item covered only one leg.

    The singular "jean" instead of "jeans" is another matter entirely; the phrase "blue jeans" originally referred to the color of trousers worn by sailors from Genoa: bleu de Gênes; "jeans" was in fact the name of the fabric, and a synonym for "denim". To treat "jeans" as a plural when it is in fact already a singular is an ignorant backformation.
  4. ATLGradStudent Senior Member

    Decatur, GA
    English - American
    I did not know that's where the term came from. I learn new things from GreenWhiteBlue all the time. Looking on dictionary.com, there seems to be some acceptance of using the singular "jean" when referring to fabric itself as opposed to the article of clothing. So, I suppose, if we felt like being wordy, we could say "a pair of jean pants" as we would "a cashmere sweater." Still, "pants" is plural, and "a jean pant" sounds just a ridiculous to me as "a jean."
  5. romina_arena Member

    Ok, finally! There are others who have heard it, and that means my friend and I are not crazy!
    I like GreenWhiteBlue's comment about the clothing trade ... that is a good way out. GreenWhiteBlue, you're right, I had forgotten they also talk about "a pant", which is NOT underwear at all in the USA.
    So I think I should be watching more fashion-related shows to see how other fashion experts use these words.
    Thank you very much, guys!
  6. romina_arena Member

    Yes, you can't imagine the face of the British girl (we teach English Language at an English Teacher Training College, and the girl is a native assistant) when we asked her about this topic ... she must've thought we were crazy, or that we we very bad at English ...

  7. mplsray Senior Member

    The garment jeans is a plural word, however, in all varieties of English. The etymology does not affect that fact one bit.

    As for the cloth, the Oxford English Dictionary shows jean to be the standard form in British English, while noting that "[t]he form jeans is used in U.S."

    Addition: It turns out that jean (the fabric), and jane with the same sense (both from Old French Janne/Jannes according to the OED, jane also having the sense of a coin) were listed in Noah Webster's Dictionary of 1828 and The Century Dictionary of 1895 as standard terms.
    Last edited: May 2, 2009
  8. ATLGradStudent Senior Member

    Decatur, GA
    English - American
    That's true, one would never say:
    "Where is your blue jeans?"
    "It is over there."
  9. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    In this case, though, we are using the fabric as a word to stand in for "a pair of trousers", in the same way that one might refer to khaki or grey flannel cloth, but would ask about a pair of trousers that were made of that cloth by saying "where are my khakis?" or "where are my grey flannels?" If we were talking about something other than a pair of trousers made from blue denim fabric, I would have no problem using "jeans" and a singular verb in the same sentence:

    Where is my jeans jacket?
    It is over there.

    I doubt that many speakers of AE would have any problem with the phrase "jeans jacket", nor do I think the typical AE speaker would refer to such a jacket using a plural verb.
  10. ATLGradStudent Senior Member

    Decatur, GA
    English - American
    I disagree. I would certainly not use a plural verb to describe said jacket, but I have always heard: "where is my jean jacket." I can't remember ever hearing "jeans jacket" and it sounds incorrect to my ear. A search of "jeans jacket" and "jean jacket" on Google (admittedly not the best measure of grammatical correctness) renders more than twice as many results for the later construction.

    I think that the fabric name is usually rendered as jean. When it is used as a noun, standing in for a pair of pants, which is its most common usage, it is pluralized to take the place of the missing garment name, which is plural. As you say, such is also the case with khakis or gray flannels. In the case of using the name of the fabric as an adjective to describe a named article of clothing, I think it remains singular. And, as an adjective, it does not change to agree with the associated noun, whether it be plural (trousers) or singular (jacket).
  11. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    And the fact that you still found more than 240,000 hits for "jeans jacket" somehow persuaded you that the term is unused and "incorrect"? Frankly, "jean jacket" sounds incorrect to my ears (which I do not consider to be in any way less trustworthy than your own), in the same way that "pant" or "short" sounds incorrect.

    I think that the fabric is usually rendered as denim.:D

    If some people say "jean" rather than "jeans", it is -- as noted above -- a backformation from a word that was not in fact a plural, even though it ended in "s".
  12. mplsray Senior Member

    You may not be aware of jeans used as the fabric name, but it does indeed exist. The OED refers to it as an American usage, and here are the definitions from two American dictionaries, from the entries for jean:

    From Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged:

    "1 also jeans plural but singular in construction : a durable twilled cotton cloth usually in solid colors or stripes used especially for sportswear and work clothes"

    From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:

    "1. Sometimes, jeans. a sturdy twilled fabric, usually of cotton.
  13. mplsray Senior Member

    I don't think the evidence is sufficient to support this opinion. The OED gives the origin of the fabric jean as "Orig. jene (ge(a)ne, geanes) fustian" The first cite for the word in this sense, from 1567, uses Jene fustyan.

    Did people in the fashion industry take jeans for the garment as a plural and form the singular jean from it, as they have done with pant from pants? It seems likely. But is there any justification for considering this pants to be anything other than plural? Not that I can find.

    An OED entry implies that the garment, as opposed to the cloth, was always plural. From its definition for the adjective blue:

    "blue-jean attrib., made of blue jean; as n. pl.,
    trousers made of blue jean."
  14. ATLGradStudent Senior Member

    Decatur, GA
    English - American
    It seems we can go round and round on this. I am simply saying that I have never heard it said that way, and that in my experience of common English usage it sounds wrong. I don't doubt that you have heard it otherwise and believe it to be correct.

    Anyway, saying "jean jacket" is different from saying "pant" or "short" because jacket is the article of clothing, the noun, and we are in agreement that it is a singular noun. We also are in agreement that the articles of clothing "pants" and "shorts" are plural and so rendering them singular makes no sense. The "jean" in jean jacket, however, is not the noun but the adjective, we are not making singular an admittedly plural noun. The question is whether, when referring to the fabric, it is acceptable to use the singular or whether that is "an ignorant backformation."

    The American Heritage Dictionary gives "jean" as the fabric and "jeans" as the pants. http://www.bartleby.com/61/55/J0025500.html

    Language evolves. Is it really all that surprising that, even though the Old French word for Genoa, Genes, is singular, that the modern word derived from it, with spelling completely different from the original word, might have a singular form that has dropped the -s? Is this necessarily ignorant? In fact, if one goes back to the original transition of the word for this fabric into Middle English, neither of the words end in -s: jene, gene. Additionally, if we stick with the language of origin, even modern French has adapted the spelling of the term, with "jean" being a singular noun and "jeans" being a plural noun. As has been said before, the etymology of the word does not change the fact that in contemporary English a once singular formation may now used in the plural. We change things like this frequently over time, especially as me move a phrase from one language to another.
  15. mplsray Senior Member

    The following quotes from British newspapers suggest to me that the "fashion singular" is now a part of the British fashion industry.

    From The Independent. After citing "a cone heel" and "a smoky eye," and having identified the trend as "singularly weird," the author says:

    "Soon, they were coming thick and fast: a flat boot, a purple lip, a black legging, a dark jean... No, not items for the one-eyed or one-legged, but fashionspeak for the latest garments and accessories."

    From The Guardian:

    "after a month of catwalking, we've lapsed into the fashion singular: 'a boot' rather than boots and 'a jean' rather than jeans."
  16. romina_arena Member

    What you've found in British newspapers is very interesting. I'll see if I can find some more in the fashion sections ... and I'll share them with you. Thanks!
  17. romina_arena Member

    Some more examples from The Guardian

    "Crucial to his survival, he has grasped the fact that we Brits are a conservative lot, and he's stopped short of going the whole hog. Yes, he often has long hair and occasionally even sports a leather trouser. And, yes, he dances remarkably well, but he is always either married with children or has a long-term girlfriend. And he refers to these people a lot."

    "Do you dress differently when you're with Kate?If anything, I dress down - a faded grey jean and a grungy T-shirt."


    "Jeans Ignore denim snobbism. Pick a jean that fits you perfectly and stick to it."

    "missed flares the first time round, albeit by the skin of my milk teeth, and I have to say I underestimated just how ridiculous a trouser can make a woman feel."


    Well, I think I got a bit carried away ...


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