I'm 'pants at' football [origin?]

Status
Not open for further replies.

susanna76

Senior Member
Romanian
I understand "pants" in British slang means "rubbish." But where does it come from? The idea that pants were often objects of inferior quality? And also, does it refer to trousers or underpants? This "I'm pants at" is a British expression, and the British tend to use "trousers" for the American "pants."

Thank you!

Here's from Colin Firth, actor-cum-writer, in a short story published in the collection Speaking with the Angel (Nick Hornby, ed.):
"and he hates me 'cause I'm pants at football."

Incidentally, I see he uses the American form 'cause rather than 'cos.
 
  • Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    It's British, so pants must mean male underwear.

    Now it's up to you to decide exactly what unsavoury aspect of male underwear was in the mind of the person who first invented the usage "rubbish"...
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It's British, so pants must mean male underwear.

    Now it's up to you to decide exactly what unsavoury aspect of male underwear was in the mind of the person who first invented the usage "rubbish"...
    I mostly agree however 'pants' can also apply to womens' knickers in Britain.

    <<Unnecessary comment and link deleted.>>
     
    Last edited by a moderator:

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Any chance, KB, that "pants" might refer to a manner of breathing?
    No it doesn't refer to his fitness level, it means that he has no skills in that activity. He could be an Olympic runner but still be pants at football.

    e.g. I'm pants at chess. would be equally valid.

    ______________________________________________________________________

    Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 Oxford University Press:
    pants/pants/
    plural noun
    3 Brit. informal rubbish; nonsense.
    http://www.wordreference.com/definition/pants
     
    Last edited:

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    ...But where does it come from? ...
    I seem to remember this term coming into use maybe in the 1980s (????)

    Originally the word "Knickers!" was used as a mild swearword and as a euphemistic form of "Nackers!" (Testicles).

    Then the idea that knickers could be used in that way spread to the idea that 'pants' could have a negative but humorous connotation. That's my recollection anyway.
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    Nooooo - definitely not American. I've never heard it before, and until I read this thread, my reaction to "I'm pants at _____" would be "What?" or perhaps "Excuse me, I must have misunderstood you." But hey, live and learn!
     

    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Nooooo - definitely not American. I've never heard it before, and until I read this thread, my reaction to "I'm pants at _____" would be "What?" or perhaps "Excuse me, I must have misunderstood you." But hey, live and learn!
    I'd agree. There are many BrE idioms that I'd understand (at least to a degree); this is one I'd shake my head at.
     

    susanna76

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Thank you all!
    Biffo: I think your Knickers as a euphemism for (K)nackers and then pants for rubbish makes a lot of sense. Thank you for pointing that out. I find it very interesting and so hard to figure out without the help of a native speaker!

    One more question. Colin Firth writes,
    "Clocks are definitely on the TTPUYL list. Things That Pants Up Your Life." He doesn't like clocks. Thinking back to how "pants" means "rubbish; nonsense," does he mean "things that mess up your life"?
     
    Last edited:

    Beryl from Northallerton

    Senior Member
    British English
    One more question. Colin Firth writes,
    "Clocks are definitely on the TTPUYL list. Things That Pants Up Your Life." He doesn't like clocks. Thinking back to how "pants" means "rubbish; nonsense," does he mean "things that mess up your life"?
    Yes, I would imagine that's exactly what it means. I say imagine, because as far as I can tell, the use of 'pants' as a verb is unusual.
    I think it may be worth pointing out to susanna76, that 'pants' and 'knickers' are not used in the same way (as each other).
    Here's a few pants-related threads for you:

    Pants and Pukka: British English [adjective] - WordReference Forums
    To be pants - WordReference Forums
    your small talk will be pants - WordReference Forums
    That diet is pants - WordReference Forums
     

    susanna76

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Hi Beryl, I looked at all those threads (interesting discussions, thank you!) but did not find too much on the difference between pants and knickers. This is what I know about knickers:
    knick·ers
    [nik-erz]
    noun, ( used with a plural verb ) 1. Also, knick·er·bock·ers [nik-er-bok-erz]. loose-fitting short trousers gathered in at the knees.
    2. Chiefly British. a. a bloomerslike undergarment worn by women.
    b. panties.
    3. British Informal. a woman's or girl's short-legged underpants.

    Where you referring to the fact that knickers are commonly understood to be the old style of panties, longer and old-fashioned?
     

    Beryl from Northallerton

    Senior Member
    British English
    In the context at hand, the precise nature of the undergarment is incidental. We were talking about an alternative and informal adjectival usage of 'pants' and somehow 'knickers' crept in.
    To the best of my knowledge, there exists no adjectival use of 'knickers'. The closest fit that comes to mind is the 'knickers' which is an informal interjection of mild despair or exasperation.
    Nor is there any connection, at least in my mind, between 'knickers' and 'knackers', and although I'm always open to persuasion, it's of no particular concern within the confines of this thread. The best thing to do, is try to remain on-topic and not to allow ourselves to be blown off course by inconsequential speculation.
    knacker /ˈnakə(r)/ Brit.
    ▶noun
    • 1 a person who disposes of dead or unwanted animals.
    • 2 (knackers) vulgar slang testicles.
     

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I seem to remember this term coming into use maybe in the 1980s (????)
    Yeah. I certainly don't remember it from earlier than that. I think I'd place it a bit later. It seems to be a younger person's usage and might be regarded as a bit trendy in some quarters. Such a perception may be behind the decision my local bus company took about three years ago to adorn the rear of some of its vehicles with the slogan "Parking's pants - so don't do it."
     
    Last edited:

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    A gentle reminder of our thread question: I understand "pants" in British slang means "rubbish." But where does it come from?
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    OED
    Brit. slang. Rubbish; nonsense. Freq. in pile (also load) of pants .
    The use of the noun in this sense is often difficult to distinguish from a predicative adjectival use.

    1994 Guardian 22 Sept. ii. 4/2 It's all a bit embarrassing because Mayo (catchphrase: ‘It's a pile of pants!’) fails to recognise her at first.

    1996 SFX May 75/2 Sure, the pilot is complete pants, utterly derivative and deathly slow, and all the actors seem to be competing to see who can flex the least facial muscles, but don't let that put you off.
    ​ I don't know who "Mayo" is but he/she was using it before 1994.

    Edit to add:
    Ah!
    http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-pan4.htm It has been an all-purpose term of disapproval among young people in the UK during the middle to late nineties. It first turned up in print in 1994, in pieces that indicate it was popularised by DJs on the BBC’s radio pop channel, Radio 1, most probably by Simon Mayo, though the finger is often pointed at Zoë Ball. ... But there’s evidence that the word in this sense is somewhat older, and that it comes from student slang. Graham Diamond, of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells me that he came across it at university about two years earlier, and actually used it in slogans on posters advertising bands around January 1993.
     
    Last edited:

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Cassell's Dictionary of Slang says:

    pants n³ [1990s] nonsense, rubbish. [var. on KNICKERS!]

    knickers!/knickers to you! excl. [1970s+] a general exclamation meaning rubbish!, you must be joking! etc; general negation of the preceding speaker's opinion, demand etc. [? euph. for KNACKERS! or use of knickers as a juv. 'obscenity']
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I must say that until this thread I'd never made any kind of connexion between pants and knickers! ... and it still seems to me [wait for it] a bit of a stretch.
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    ...
    Nor is there any connection, at least in my mind, between 'knickers' and 'knackers'...I'm always open to persuasion...
    You say you're open to persuasion so I hope I don't go off-topic by providing a little background to this. I believe that the connection goes back quite a way but I won't attempt to present an exhaustive history. A quick Google search reveals that Les Dawson used the phrase Knickers! Knackers! Knockers! as a catchphrase in the 1970's. Before that we can trace a bowdlerized version "nicky-nacky-nocky-noo" being used as a catchphrase by Spike Milligan in the Goon Show. From here on I'm dredging my memory but I believe there was a bawdy pub song of that name which involved touching various body parts as it was sung.
    I haven't given chapter and vers but if anyone really wants to know more they can PM me and ask for further details.

    The next step in the chain (from 'knickers' to 'pants') comes from personal memory when, in the 1980s - 90s, I remember 'knickers' being a popular middle-class euphemism for (and sometimes, for the more daring, alternating with) 'knackers' and then the word 'pants' appearing as if from nowhere but being used initially as a mild swearword in place of "Knickers!". After that it took on a life of its own and morphed into the present day slang meaning.

    I really don't want to spend a lot of time following this up but I believe I have given enough clues for people to conduct their own research.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I wouldn't, myself, have said this use of "pants" derived from the derisive expression "Knickers!", though there's undoubtedly some kinship between the two expressions.

    Here's what Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site has to say:
    [...] Pants in British usage are not trousers, of course, but underpants, principally male. These intimate nether garments have long been a source of innocent merriment among pubescent youth, and this was just another example, in the tradition of the earlier exclamation knickers!, indicating contempt or exasperation. It appears in phrases like “it’s a pile of pants!” (Simon Mayo’s catchphrase) and “it’s pants!” or “it’s absolute pants”, meaning that it’s a total load of rubbish. Later, we began to hear it from older people as in “My tomato crop was pants last year”. [...]
     

    Beery

    New Member
    English
    Hope no one minds me resurrecting this for a moment.

    I actually left the UK in 1984, came back for a year in 1985 and left for good in 1986. "Pants" as an adjective was never used in the UK before then as far as I'm aware. The first time I saw it was in 'Viz' comic in the early 1990s. I have to assume it came into wide usage sometime after I left the UK, though I suppose it may have been in some kind of local usage before then.
     

    Bevj

    Allegra Moderata (Sp/Eng, Cat)
    English (U.K.)
    I have found this very interesting too.
    I left the UK in 1985 and had never heard 'pants' used as an adjective.
    In more recent years I have seen it in print and am aware of what it means. But last week someone actually said to me 'The weather has been pants this week'. I was quite startled. I am curious to know if this use of 'pants' is widespread in the UK nowadays? The person I was talking to was in her early 30's and from the south-east of England.
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I have found this very interesting too.
    I left the UK in 1985 and had never heard 'pants' used as an adjective.
    In more recent years I have seen it in print and am aware of what it means. But last week someone actually said to me 'The weather has been pants this week'. I was quite startled. I am curious to know if this use of 'pants' is widespread in the UK nowadays? The person I was talking to was in her early 30's and from the south-east of England.
    I suggest a Google search for "was pants" 2013 :uk

    Example
    Most recent review
    “The food was pants.”
    - 10 Feb 2013

    http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g187489-d3470556-r151841666-Mazapan_El_Foro_Cafe_Bar-Toledo_Province_of_Toledo_Castile_La_Mancha.html
     

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I have found this very interesting too.
    I left the UK in 1985 and had never heard 'pants' used as an adjective.
    In more recent years I have seen it in print and am aware of what it means. But last week someone actually said to me 'The weather has been pants this week'. I was quite startled. I am curious to know if this use of 'pants' is widespread in the UK nowadays? The person I was talking to was in her early 30's and from the south-east of England.
    I get the impression that round here (Derby) it appears in the speech of the younger generation, but I couldn' tell you at what age the 'cut-off point' occurs. I cannot imagine myself using it other than to sound younger and cooler than I am, whether in some 'sad' (there's another recent usage you may not be familiar with) attempt to curry favour or in some kind of ironic, 'post-modern' (whatever that really means) spirit. I've certainly never heard it from anyone older than me, but I can reveal that some of my local buses desport the slogan, "Parking's pants - so why do it?"
     
    Last edited:

    dadane

    Senior Member
    English (London/Essex)
    I always thought it had its origins 'up north' somewhere. This is based an a detailed and comprehensive study :D, the conclusion of which was: I heard it there first (West Lancs early 90s to be precise).
     

    RodH

    New Member
    English - England and Australia
    Seems to be quite a bit older than UK use, and originally US, in origin:

    OED:
    P1. U.S. colloq. (a person's) name is pants and variants: indicating that someone is discredited or unpopular, or has failed. Now rare. 1886 College Courier (Monmouth, Illinois) Jan. 15/2 O! dignity, thy name is pants when thou essayist to hold a candle to the Coup.
    1893 Puck (N.Y.) 12 July 324/2 When things don't come a man's way right off he gits to thinkin' his name is pants.
    1921 Hamburg (Iowa) Reporter 9 June, We will never be able to play another ball game and our name will be ‘pants’ from this day on for ever more.
    1931 Moberly (Missouri) Monitor-Index14 Oct. 7/5 Farmer's prayer... O Mighty Hoover, who are in Washington, when not fishing on the Rapidan. Thy name is pants.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    ... except that it doesn't mean 'discredited' or 'unpopular' or 'having failed' ~ or anything like that.
    Indeed. The immediately preceding entry in the OED is
    4. Brit. slang. Rubbish; nonsense. Freq. in pile (also load) of pants .The use of the noun in this sense is often difficult to distinguish from a predicative adjectival use.

    1994 Guardian 22 Sept. ii. 4/2 It's all a bit embarrassing because Mayo (catchphrase: ‘It's a pile of pants!’) fails to recognise her at first.

     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Oh, Ewie, shame on you! So experienced in language and you've forgotten that etymology is no proof of meaning. Etymology:

    US 1886: 'thy name is pants' = 'your name is discredited'
    US 1921: 'our name will be ‘pants’ from this day on' = our name will be discredited
    UK 1950: 'my name will be pants' = I will be discredited
    UK 1990: 'I am pants' = I have been discredited, I am incompetent
    UK 2000: 'X is pants' = X is incompetent, worthless, etc.


     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Another question arises: "Your name is trousers"... doesn't seem very likely: what is discreditable about trousers? Is "pants" a reference to some, for example, Greek mythological character (I don't mean the god of trousers.)

    On the other hand, you can see why underpants might be a term of derision, what with the British propensity for toilet (and all associated terms) humour.
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    UK 2014: "Your post is pants, Keith" = Your post has failed to prove anything...
    As ever, Ewie, cool in argument and logical in reasoning!

    Perhaps I should expand:

    1. The etymology of the expression has extended over 130 years.
    2. The similarity of meaning, as PaulQ says, seems to preclude accidental coincidence.
    3. However the meaning has drifted from 'discredited' to 'worthless'.
    4. This (to my mind slight) drift is quite normal in the evolution of language.
    5. The fact that the original US meaning wasn't exactly the same as the modern UK one needn't surprise us greatly.

    Now, the question that interests me is how come the expression re-emerged after 50 years' obscurity in the mid-20th century? (Though I have to say, it doesn't interest me inordinately...)
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Perhaps I should expand too, Keith.

    Preamble: Some time in the late 20th century someone (in his infinite wisdom) decided that, after umpteen centuries of meaning 'bad', a new (additional) meaning of bad was 'good'. We might, if we cared sufficiently, call this a 'spontaneous semantic reassignment'.

    A: Around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, one US meaning of pants was 'discredited'/'unpopular'/'having failed' [see post #30]. This meaning has become so exceedingly rare in the 21st century that not one of the Americanpersons responding to this thread seems aware of it.

    B: Moving on 60 years or so to the 1990s, the word pants came to mean (additionally) 'rubbish' in the UK.

    There appears to be no continuity between A and B. The new British meaning appears to be a spontaneous semantic reassignment.

    The 'quote':
    UK 1950: 'my name will be pants' = I will be discredited
    is (at best) specious, because we don't know where it comes from: we have no handy context to enable us to form our own judgment ~ rather than merely taking your word for it ~ as to what the speaker meant.

    Further, the 'quote' (again apparently plucked from thin air):
    UK 1990: 'I am pants' = I have been discredited
    smacks of 'semantic gerrymandering', to coin another stupid term.

    To answer your points in post #37:
    (1) Ah but has it? ~ words die, meanings die. It is my contention [godthisisboring] that meaning A died out in the first half of the 20th century, and that meaning B, rather like one of your 'quotes', appeared from nowhere on the opposite side of the Atlantic 60-odd years later.
    (2) Was that what PaulQ meant?
    (3) See (1).
    (4) Agree.
    (5) I can't be arsed.


    P.S. I don't get paid enough to be cool and logical at all times.
     
    Last edited:

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    As ever, Ewie, cool in argument and logical in reasoning!

    Perhaps I should expand:

    1. The similarity of meaning, as PaulQ says, seems to preclude accidental coincidence.
    1. Perhaps I should expand too, Keith.
    (2) Was that what PaulQ meant?
    Well, no. I was merely musing about why an American should say the equivalent of "trousers". I did however, think that, tempting as it was, Keith's leap just failed to make the other side.
    (5) I can't be arsed. P.S. I don't get paid enough to be cool and logical at all times.
    Hmmm...
     

    RodH

    New Member
    English - England and Australia
    Mmm. I wonder whether, rather than underpants, it owes anything to 'pantaloons", which were seen as somewhat comical by the mid 19th C. "Pantaloons" themselves have an interesting origin ( from "Pantaleone" or "all lion" according to some & often a fool in early lit).
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    Hmm. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that late 20th century BE speakers would truncate a word rarely used in Britain in the late 20th century, at a time when they all wore pants (except when going commando). The OED has
    Etymology: < French pantalon the character Pantaloon (1583–4 as Panthalon), person who changes his behaviour, opinions, etc., out of self-interest (1651), a comically hypocritical character (1679), costume of Pantaloon (1585 as pantaleon), close-fitting garment going from the neck or shoulders to the feet with straight legs (1628), type of breeches (1650), long trousers (1790; also 1797 denoting a woman's undergarment) and its etymon Italian pantalone the Venetian character Pantaloon (1561 or earlier), so called from the frequency of Pantalone as a male forename among Venetians, which was in turn after the name of SanPantaleone or San Pantalone, the patron saint of the city (from at least the 10th cent.). Compare Italian pantaloni trousers (1799; < French).
    Not that this entry adds anything to the meaning or origin of "I'm pants at football".
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Just quoting the Online Slang Dictionary:
    adjective
    • inadequate, displeasing, or of poor quality. Possible origin: underwear, called "pants" in Britain. ....
    notes
    • Another possible etymology for the "displeasing" meaning is the German expression "toten Hosen." Literally "dead pants", the expression means "impotent" or "nothing going on".
    The German connection sounds most dubious.
     

    RodH

    New Member
    English - England and Australia
    I was thinking more of the origin of the earlier US expression ( which I still strongly suspect really provides the origin of the more recent UK use. Just can't track down the relevant US sitcom shown in the UK. ;-) ) . And of course "Pantaloon" etc is clearly the basis for all uses of "Pants" (whether under or over) more generally , regardless.
     

    RodH

    New Member
    English - England and Australia
    Plenty of them! Its quite probable of course that, whoever the creative possible Brit who used it first in recent times was, that they consciously or unconsciously combined a series of earlier images. "Flying by the seat of my pants" (not technically skilled) , "She/he pulled my pants down" (beat me convincingly), thinkin' his name is pants (realising he's been a dingbat) , etc etc. The bit dropped off is interesting, too. Think about a common meaning of "loon, luny, etc etc
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    You think that my "1950s missing link" was a sitcom, Rod? Wouldn't that have provided an earlier widespead use in Britain?

    I have an open mind on whether it was that, or an imported comic, or contact with GIs. Whatever, I agree with you that a link back to the American "my name is pants" is more than likely. (The British equivalent of that was of course "my name is mud".)
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    Plenty of them! Its quite probable of course that, whoever the creative possible Brit who used it first in recent times was, that they consciously or unconsciously combined a series of earlier images. "Flying by the seat of my pants" (not technically skilled) , "She/he pulled my pants down" (beat me convincingly), thinkin' his name is pants (realising he's been a dingbat) , etc etc. The bit dropped off is interesting, too. Think about a common meaning of "loon, luny, etc etc
    This is getting to the silly stage. "He was flying by the seat of his pants" does not mean "not technically skilled". I've never heard "She pulled my pants down" to mean "she beat me convincingly", and the common meanings of "loon" and its variants have nothing to do with useless. It's hard to see how dropping madness from a pair of unusual trousers gets us to "useless". And as far as "pantaloon" and "loon" is concerned, I have already pointed out that the word "pantaloon" had no currency in late 20th century Britain.

    Now let me see ... what was that word I was trying to remember? ?.. ah, yes - "troll"
     

    RodH

    New Member
    English - England and Australia
    Keep your pants on, Andy! "Flying by the seat of his pants" commonly means "working it out as he goes along", which roughly equates to "not technically skilled". "Pulled my pants down" has many variants - "beat the pants off me", etc etc, and is common enough in Australia.

    I'm an ageing anthropologist, not an etymologist, and I like thinking about the way people play with words, and the way ideas underlying them often become intertwined- emerging , lying dormant, undergoing new transformations based on earlier themes, etc etc. What I was trying to suggest was that modern formations can be arrived at by multiple paths, drawing on a range of earlier different, but related, metaphorical forms.

    Yes, Keith, your UK 1950 mention was a goody, which I'm afraid I missed. Like you, I see far more continuity between the early US meanings and the current UK ones than some are prepared to accept.
     

    RodH

    New Member
    English - England and Australia
    The connection with "pantaloon", I suspect, is primarily drawing on the notions of the pantaloon as fool /incompetent
     
    Last edited:
    Status
    Not open for further replies.
    < Previous | Next >
    Top