The trousers of doom

Trousers, as in, long pants that cover the legs, appear to have been invented more or less simultaneously and more or less independently in Persia and Scythia. We can see in figurative decorations that the styles were quite different, but men commonly wore trousers in both places.

This might be because the men of both nations spent a lot of time on horseback. Since stirrups hadn't been invented yet, horseriding in a Greek chiton must have been eye-opening, even with a rag to wrap up the goodies.

Nevertheless the Greeks never had any time for trousers, who thought them weird and laughable, and associated them with the hated enemy. A Greek who copied Persian dress could expect heckling at best. Not even Alexander the Great was spared when he copied the Persians.

And therein lies a problem for poor Gary.

My second book includes a man who wears trousers. But I am reliably informed that trousers is not the most common word in the US, where pants is preferred. For the rest of the civilized world, pants means something quite different.

Incidentally, this means that when an American describes a writer as a pantster, it conjures an image in British readers that certainly wasn't intended.

I confess my mind rebels at the thought of calling them anything but trousers, but I can repress revulsion long enough to do a global replace if necessary.

What do you think? Will the Americans cope with trousers? Or shall my character wear pants?

54 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

This American can accept the term trousers without pause.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, trousers is fine. It's not the most commonly used word, but everyone knows what it means.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Travis! That was an incredibly quick reply.

Thanks too, Elizabeth.

Given a choice, would you prefer pants?

Welshcake said...

How about kecks?

I love that word.

Geoff Carter said...

Do not betray the English language - hang in there with trousers.
While Americans may prefer pants, there is no ambiguity about trousers.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Americans know what you mean with trousers, but I immediately think of a British gentleman's pants (sorry if I'm repulsing anyone!) when I hear the word.

But yes, I think Americans can cope with trousers.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Yes, we Americans can handle the word trousers. But now I'm DYING of curiosity--what is the other meaning for pants? (I'm guessing, of course, but it would still be fun to know).

Also, when I give kids tours at the museum (Carlos Museum at Emory University) I always point out the depiction of the Persian in pants (oops, I mean trousers) vs the Greek warrior who is showing off his manly gams. I tell 'em: "The Greeks thought the pants-wearing Persians were effeminate because to them, REAL men wore skirts!" It's always a delight to hear them giggle at this...

Heidi Cautrell said...

Until recently I had no clue that pants to British folks meant underpants.

Trousers is absolutely acceptable to me as an American. I know the meaning of the word, I simply use pants when I'm talking or writing because that's what I grew up knowing.

Susanna Fraser said...

Trousers is perfectly fine with this American, and I use it in my own work because I write the British Regency, so my men are either wearing trousers, breeches, or pantaloons depending on the circumstances. Pantaloons does give me the giggles, I admit, so I try to avoid mentioning them, but trousers sounds normal.

Elizabeth said...

My preference is for you to use the word that seems right to you. :) Seriously. Changing words because Americans supposedly won't get them is ridiculous. No one stopped buying Harry Potter when the Quidditch field suddenly became a Quidditch pitch.

SM Schmidt said...

Since when did American's loose the ability to look up trousers in the dictionary? It's kinda obvious to me and silly really for words to be translated across the pond, then again I read mostly British authors.

LQQ said...

Trousers, trousers, down with pants!

Just Another Sarah said...

I'm American, and I'm totally cool with trousers. I really like the term, in fact. I think most would be just fine with that!

Gary Corby said...

Welshcake, if I use kecks, there'll have to be a glossary.

(And in passing, the excellent Australian contemporary mystery author Peter Temple, when one of his books was published in the US, was asked for a glossary with 200 entries!)

Gary Corby said...

Hey Geoff, looks like no betrayal required! Though it's not so much a question of betrayal as making sure the story is easy to digest.

Gary Corby said...

Vicky, Heidi has it right.

In Britain, a pantster would be someone who writes in their underwear. Which is sort of cool really.

Gary Corby said...

Oh, Vicky, I should have added, I love your museum talk! No one in their right mind would want to face a Scots regiment, and they wear skirts.

Gary Corby said...

Hello Heidi! I think this might be the first time you've commented. Welcome to the blog!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susanna, you have the reverse issue to me.

Just out of curiousity, how do you find switching to UK English?

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Elizabeth, SM and Sarah! I think we have a firm vote for trousers.

Gary Corby said...

I'm with you, LQQ, down with pants!

_*rachel*_ said...

Would this even come up? In the North American edition, you could do "pants." For editions elsewhere, couldn't you do a replace-all "trousers?"

I'm fine with concessions to the rest of the world, in this area anyway. "Trousers" has hardly been the hardest vocabulary I've found while reading.

You could find a synonym. Pantaloons, leggings, leg coverings--something along those lines.

Actually, the reason I wouldn't want to face a Scots regiment isn't that they wore skirts, it's that, when fighting, they *didn't* wear skirts.

PS: Gary, thanks for your earlier post on Rammenas. "The Voice" wouldn't be posted there without your story and link.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Rachel,

I liked your story on Rammenas!

What you suggest is exactly what I would do if there was a noticaeable preference for pants. It's better to avoid customizations though if possible because (a) it's easy to forget to revert them later; and (b)Unless the words have the same syllable structure, it changes the rhythm of the sentences.

Christine H said...

This was very timely, Gary, as I was wondering what to call the leg coverings of my own characters. I didn't realize the whole issue of using the term "pants" outside of America.

Incidentally, what you call "pants" we call "underwear."

Christine H said...

By the way, I recently looked up the phrase "flying by the seat of one's pants" (which is where the term "pantser" comes from). It means to fly a plane without instruments - sitting in the cockpit with nothing but your eyes, ears and common sense to guide you.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Christine,

Just to confuse things even more, where I am, underwear is underwear, pants usually refers to either the short outer garments, a.k.a. shorts, or pants can also mean the same as the US but for ladies only, while men wear trousers!

It's enough to make an author become a nudist.

Sarah W said...

horseriding in a Greek chiton must have been eye-opening

I nearly sacrificed a keyboard over this one line.

I'm late to the debate, but to my American ear, trousers sounds far less of an anachronism than pants.

What was/is the original Persian word for them?

Elizabeth said...

it changes the rhythm of the sentences.

Gary,

You do realize this makes me all the more impatient for your book, right? So few people (even writers!) seem to understand that great prose must have a rhythm.

Annette said...

I'm an American who would not hesitate at the word trousers -- I actually like it a lot.

And here is proof that men in skirts are NOT effeminate:

manly man in skirt

Gary Corby said...

Sarah, I've found an Old Persian dictionary which says the word for trousers was anaxyrides. I have no idea if it's right.

The Greek for Scythian trousers was sarabala. Which is probably a mangle of the Scythian word for same.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Elizabeth, that's very kind of you to say!

Gary Corby said...

Annette,

Where did you get that picture of me?

Karin said...

I just came across this great site and have started reading it backwards.

There’s that question about Icelandic about a week or so ago: They have a very straightforward syntax (at least it seems so to me, but then I’m Swedish and Icelandic is our ”Latin”.) It goes: ”Now Sven picks up sword. Sven hits Oluf’s head. Oluf dies.” They do not put the verbs at the ending, unless you just have a couple of words in the sentence. But that last sentence could also have been something like “Then dies Oluf.”

As for trousers, I’m glad you brought it up since it is a constant cause for confusion. ENGLAND TROUSERS, US PANTS. I’ll write that on my arm to avoid embarrassing moments.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Gee, you think linguistic misunderstanding will prevent Americans from rooting for the guy in pants?
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Gary Corby said...

Hey Peter. Based on some feedback I got elsewhere, I was slightly worried about some people asking, "What's a trouser?" But it seems there's no need to worry at all.

As for "rooting" for guys in pants, this has its own moral issues in some countries.

Gary Corby said...

Hello Karin, welcome to the blog!

Thanks for that about Icelandic. I didn't realize the extent to which it's Latin-like for the Scandinavian languages.

Matthew Delman said...

I'm just adding in my agreement with the other Americans who say "trousers" is fine.

I've heard dozens of people use the word in conversation, so it doesn't really bother me as an American reader. Also, lots of Americans have been introduced to Britishisms by the Harry Potter series already, so I'd say you're pretty darn safe.

Case in point: Rowling didn't change the word "jumper" to "sweater" for the North American edition of the books. You don't have to change "trousers" to "pants."

RWMG said...

Of course, you could have your Athenian characters use 'trousers' and your Dorian or Theban speakers (if you have any) use 'pants'.

Gary Corby said...

Robert, your suggestion's really very clever (as always).

I'm not sure it would work in my context because then there's the issue of explaining why they use different words, which would require adding some exposition, but there are definitely situations where that would work. Hmmm...I might pop it in to see what happens...

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Matthew.

As it happens I was reading one of the SPQR historical mysteries last night, by American John Roberts, and I came across a reference to "trouser-wearing Medes"!

_*rachel*_ said...

Hey, Karin--what blog is that and is it in English? I'm studying some linguistics, so I'd be interested to see it.

Eilir said...

I vote for trousers. I wouldn't give it a second thought. Now granted, I read lots of British lit, but still. And pants, well, I think of as the modern equivalent. Trousers are just esoteric enough to describe ancient legwear.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Eilir!

Amalia T. said...

so glad I read most of these comments and saw the Icelandic tutorial! Now since I made that comment I feel like I should weigh in on the actual topic--Not that my opinion has not already been stated since I'm so late to the party.

I think I'd be more put off by an ancient Greek/Persian/whathaveyou running around in pants than I would be if he were running around in trousers. Pants is so modern sounding. Trousers is definitely better!

Peter Rozovsky said...

The pants/trousers dichotomy would be precisely the opposite for most North American readers.

I grew up in Canada at a time when its English was more British-flavored than American English is now, so I know what trousers are. I have since had that knowledge reinforced by Wallace and Grommit. But "trousers" has a decided edge of the whimsical and archaic for many North Americans, just as "pants" means for British and, I guess, Australian readers something other than the long, two-legged garment that I wear each day.

So my Solomonic recommendation, Gary, is that you go with "trousers" -- for the UK and Australian editions and "pants" for North American editions. Remember: This is North America. We wear pants here.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Amalia. All votes count!

And this one looks to be unanimous. The irony is, from the US perspective trousers seems a good choice because it looks old fashioned, whereas from the UK perspective, trousers looks right because it's normal usage.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Peter, I would never have guessed your accent for Canadian, but that's probably my tin ear.

I confess this point came up in the editorial letter for my second book, so I'll point Editor Kathleen at all your wise responses and let her choose.

IHahn said...

I'm a bit late, but yes, here is another vote for trousers.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Irene!

Trousers it is. Better late than trouserless.

AvenSarah said...

Also late to the party -- my vote is for trousers, no problem at all -- but really I'm commenting just to point out that, actually, lots of British vocab was changed for the US editions of Harry Potter (though not all of it, of course), so that clearly it *was* thought too confusing for Americans to read heavily UK-oriented language. (Including the first books title, for goodness' sake, which isn't even UK-specific!). Fortunately in Canada we get the UK versions, so didn't have to worry about that. As Peter says, our English has always been heavily influenced by our UK links, so we tend to be comfortable with both usages.

Gary Corby said...

I can't imagine being the copyeditor who had to weed out UK-isms from books that thick, with all those unusual terms to start with. Copyeditors must have superhuman patience.

Peter Rozovsky said...

No, we copy editors just enjoy reading, getting things right, and making sure others do the same.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter.

Yes, but the patience involved! I couldn't do it. I was vastly impressed by some of the things my copy editor caught.

Do copy editors give a special groan when confronted with something as thick as a phone book? Or is it business as usual?

Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, my newspaper copy editing is a job. But I have proofread/copy edited a couple of crime novels, and the only reason I won't acknowledge that the work was pure joy is that I don't want to drive my price down.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/