Long Johns

« previous post | next post »

From Faith Jones:

I recently had the need to buy my elderly mother some long johns as she is finding even our wimpy, West Coast winters hard to take. In a thank you email she refused to call the tops "long johns," as to her that is only for the pants, but didn't know another term for them and asked what they are called.  To me, they are called "long john tops." This got me thinking about the slipperiness of this term and I asked Facebook which gave me many, many different answers.

The replies come from all over the US and Canada, with a few Brits, and I see no consensus. A significant number of people, perhaps a plurality, think long johns are pants only, but otherwise I see no pattern.

The OED tells us that this term has been "Applied to various objects characterized by their unusual length", starting with

1. Either of two tropical South American trees of the genus Triplaris (family Polygalaceae), T. americana and T. weigeltiana, both having a tall, relatively unbranched stem and showy pink flowers.


2. N. Amer. An oblong doughnut, typically iced or glazed, and having any of various fillings, as cream, jam, fruit, etc.

Both the trees and the doughnuts are news to me. In the third place (because history), the OED gets around to

3. colloq. (orig. U.S.). In pl. Underpants with closely fitted legs that extend to the wearer's ankles, worn for warmth during cold weather; (more generally) long underwear of any kind.

Faith adds:

I do not believe long johns have been covered on language log, and a cursory web search turned up contradictory evidence. I feel this at least deserves a Breakfast Experiment™. My part of this experiment was identifying the question. I will leave it to you to devise an experimental instrument.

Typically a Breakfast Experiment™ involves data-mining in text or speech collections, or a computer simulation of some kind, and I don't see any obvious way to use these methods to address the question of what long-underwear tops are called.  You could look at (underwear-related) uses of the term "long johns" in various sources and try to determine whether they involve thermal undershirts as well as underpants, but it's often hard to tell:

[link] We have all suffered through the extreme (for our area) cold spell of the last week, but none more so than the vendors at the Old Town Marketplace, who sat in the near freezing cold both Friday and Saturday. I saw older women completely wrapped in blankets and coats; another guy told me he was wearing long-johns . . . but coupled with the wide open entry door, a very cold concrete floor and a complete lack of heat, I can only guess how cold they must have been at the end of the day.

[link] With modern synthetic base and mid layers, the cold doesn’t penetrate like it used to when all you had to ward off cold was waffle-style long johns.

[link] Your hands are one of the largest conductors of heat throughout your body. Even if you have on a heavy down jacket, long johns, and thick pants, if your hands are cold, you can still feel very cold and risk getting sick.

This is more the sort of thing that calls for a web-based survey — Faith's Facebook query was a version of this:

Meaning of the term "Long Johns". Does it mean:
– just the bottoms of two-piece long underwear
– the bottoms and the tops of two-piece long underwear
– a union suit, i.e. one-piece long underwear as opposed to two-piece
Your thoughts below, please.

And the 25 responses she got so far include some gems:

In a completely tangential note, I misread Union suit in a book as a kid and referred to it as an Onion Suit until I was 20.

An aside on this topic: in Chile, long johns are given the name "matapasiones" (passion-killers).

But in principle you'd want a much larger sample, and you'd also want some demographic information from the respondents — at least age, geographical history, and ethnicity.

Running up such a survey involves three stages:

  1. Design: Exactly what do you ask?
  2. Coding: Setting up a web interface
  3. Action: Recruiting participants and tabulating the results

(1) is fairly easy, though determining the right set of demographic metadata deserves some thought. And for a quick version of (2) you could use one of the convenient platforms like qualtrics.

LLOG has a large enough audience to get a good-sized (though alas not especially representative) sample of responses, and so perhaps I should set up Breakfast Surveys™ as a regular feature of the blog. I don't have time to do a good job of it this morning, but perhaps soon …

We might be able to persuade Bert Vaux to incorporate a version of this question into his current Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes — but  that project isn't set up to allow questions to be added ad hoc, as far as I can see. And in any case it seems that the answers in this case are more idiosyncratic than geographic, which would make the issue less interesting to the map makers.





  1. Dick Margulis said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 9:47 am

    A Google image search confirms that the commercial world is selling all three of the configurations identified above. Maybe a fair definition is simply "thermal underwear," as a category that includes bottoms, tops, and one-piece garments.

    The doughnut definition was familiar to me from when I worked as a baker. A number of fried goods (as well as baked goods) have traditional names that have fallen by the wayside in favor of more transparent descriptions. A jelly doughnut (a pale imitation of ein Berliner) used to be called a Bismark. What Dunkin' Donuts now calls a coffee roll was a Pershing (later a Persian, when few people knew who Pershing was).

  2. Stephen Nightingale said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 10:13 am

    The full body item with a flap in the bum is called 'BVDs', after Bradley, Voorhees and Day, now with the cuddlier name of Berkshire Hathaway.

    The long johns I'm wearing right now in this freezing office are twinned with a sweat shirt labelled for some ancient century ride.


  3. Michael H said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    When it got cold when I was growing up in Massachusetts, my mother would have me put on my long underwear. These were always tops and bottoms. It was inconceivable to wear just the top or just the bottom.

    If was cold out and someone told me they were wearing Long Johns, I'd assume they were wearing thermal underwear tops and bottoms, not just bottoms.

  4. Rube said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    For whatever tiny amount it is worth, to me, a Canadian, mid-fifties, long johns are either the pants or the combination outfit. I would never say "long john shirt".

    And the term for the donut is still alive. I'm pretty sure that's what they call the donuts of that type at 7-11.

  5. Vance Koven said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 10:39 am

    I've always known the unibody-with-rear-flap as Dr. Dentons, as in Car Talk's double-punning Automotive Medical Researcher Dr. Denton Fender.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 10:44 am

    I saw "Bismark" or "Bismarck" the day before yesterday at Heinen's, a chain of grocery stores in northeastern Ohio. I didn't check to see what it applied to. The display also included "ring donuts".

    The term I say is "long underwear". I understand "long johns" to refer to same thing: both shirts with long sleeves and pants with long legs, especially the waffle-style ones, as one of the people quoted above put it.

    I'd probably refer to "long underwear tops".

  7. Jen said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    Long Johns are definitely only the legs, but I thought Bismarck was herring!

  8. Andrew said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    It has to include the pants, and it has to be thermal. Could be just the bottoms, or could be overalls, but long underpants have to be part of the deal.

  9. Bean said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    Try moving across the country for confusion in doughnut/donut names. I grew up in Manitoba, where "Bismarck" was sold at Robin's, and was the same thing as "Boston Creme" sold at Tim's. (A filled doughnut with custard in the middle and chocolate on top.) A jam-filled doughnut with icing sugar on the outside was a "jambuster", a name I now know to be local to Winnipeg/Manitoba. People in the Maritimes, where I now live, have no idea what a jambuster is; they call them jelly doughnuts. Same with "long john" which is a rectangular doughnut, stuffed with whipped cream and topped with chocolate, kind of in the same family as an eclair but less high-falutin'. I have no clue what they would call the long john here because I've never seen one. Also, Maritime cinnamon buns are usually hard and more pastry-like, not soft and fleshy and gooey like Western Canadian ones.

    As for the long underwear, I would say "long johns" is pants only, or a one-piece. I refer to the top half as "long underwear top" when it comes up in conversation, which is rare, although now that you mention it I've got mine (just the top) packed in a bag to go skating later.

  10. Amy Stoller said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

    For me in NYC, long johns/long underwear usually means both tops and bottoms, but can certainly mean just the bottoms. If you say “thermal underwear” to me, the first thing I’ll think of is waffle weave., although technically there is an awful lot of thermal underwear that doesn’t have waffle weave.

    To refer to the tops only, I’d say thermal teeshirt or tee (if it’s in waffle weave), or long-sleeved teeshirt or tee. Depending on the neck opening, I might call it a henley, but I never used that term as a kid.

    A union suit is all one piece, and it’s pretty darned impractical if it doesn’t have the drop-down panel in the rear.

    Dr. Denton was a brand-name, and in our family, it referred only to one-piece footed pajamas—that is, with built in sock-slippers. I’m pretty sure they had the drop-down rear panel, too, but it was the footie element that made them “Dr. Dentons."

  11. Jonathan said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    Do people actually say "thermal underwear"? In my circles you'd just say "thermals". (50s, SoCal and Boston)

  12. Mara K said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

    Central Illinois here. I learned "long john" first to refer to the donut, and second to the long underwear–usually just the pants, but a set of long johns includes the shirt.

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

    Top Pot, a local donut chain here in Seattle, sells both Bismarcks and Pershings by those names. (Fun fact: the original store was supposed to be called Top Spot, but the S got broken off the sign en route to installation, so they stuck a picture of a percolator in its place.)

    In my lexicon, a thermal crew is what one wears routinely under a shirt or sweater in winter. Long johns (thermal leggings worn under slacks or jeans) are called for only in especially cold weather.

  14. DaveK said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

    " Long underwear" is the familiar term for me. I always thought of "longjohns" as a union suit–the ones with the flap in the back.

  15. Hans said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 3:28 pm

    An aside on this topic: in Chile, long johns are given the name "matapasiones" (passion-killers).
    That kind of designation is not limited to Chile; in German, they're sometimes called Liebestöter "love-killers".

  16. Gregory Bryce said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 4:30 pm

    Is Long John Silver, the villainous pirate in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 Treasure Island, a factor in this discussion? "He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham – plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling." I have heard of other tall men named John given the nickname Long John __.

    I am very familiar with the winter clothing. If I ever plan to be outdoors for long in this sub-Arctic climate during a cold spell, on go the long johns. I would use that term for the set, I think, as well as just the lower half.

    I didn't know the term waffle weave, but it aptly describes my first set. My second set was of a fish-net style made of thick cotton string, with no fabric beneath the holes; it was designed to trap a layer of warm air. The third set was a very thin fabric of woven 100% polyester. My present set is thicker and cuddlier, made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester by Stanfield's of Truro, Nova Scotia. Many Canadians would refer to their long johns by the Stanfield's brand name. "Time to put on the Stanfields, Fred."

    As for the pastry, I first visited a chain doughnut shop in 1964, the year such chains (Tim Horton's, Country Style) were introduced to Canada.

    I may not have encountered the name "long john(s)" for an oblong chocolate covered pastry until the late 1980s and 1990s. In any case, my kids (three of them my step-children of my American second wife) called them "chocolate hot dogs" and I still do.

    I don't know what Tim Hortons [no apostrophe now] calls them these days; I'd just say, "I'd like one of those."

    (I am a native of Toronto, on the Great Lakes, but have lived in Canada's Yukon Territory for 42 years. All my great-grandparents had Scottish and English ancestors.)

  17. Vireya said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 5:46 pm

    Australian – to me long-johns are just the pants. The top is a spencer. I've never seen the combination style here, so don't have a word for it.

  18. Brett said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

    To me "long johns" only means the bottom. "Long underwear" can mean any of the various configurations, although it would sound a little weird to talk about "long underwear" that didn't include a leg component. "Thermal underwear" is more neutral, and I definitely would not call them "thermals." "Thermals" are what buzzards soar on.

    "Long johns" and "bismarks" as terms for dough nuts are familiar, although I don't use them. I do remember my father (who was from Chicago) once lamenting that nobody in Boston when he arrived there in 1966 knew what a "jelly bismark" was.

  19. Rubrick said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    To me is the interesting bit here is the appearance of "John". It turns up in other similar places; e.g., a part of a wetsuit used in colder water is known as a "Farmer John". The "farmer" part is surely because in some versions it resembles bib overalls, but why John? Are there other names which fill the "generic name to attach to thing" slot with similar frequency in English?

  20. ryan said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    From my central Illinois perspective, long johns are the bottoms or the tops and bottoms, but top alone would be a long underwear top or long underwear shirt. And chocolate long johns are definitely still a thing in the doughnut department. I'm not sure I've ever heard of a non-chocolate long john.

    I'd guess lesser-used underwear terms have a lot of family-by-family variability, because it's not something one compares notes or checks one's usage on very often. Could someone who grew up with me refer to a union suit as long johns? I couldn't tell you, being unaware of anyone who ever wore one. Doesn't mean they didn't. But they failed to tell me.

  21. Milan said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    @Dick Margulis
    Has the "Pershing" doughnut anything to do with the term "doughboy" for the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces?

    @Michael H and all
    It's amazing how this term lends itself to this kind of ambiguity: You hear someone saying that they wear "long johns" in appropriate circumstances, and you just assume that they are talking about the same thing you mean when you say "long johns". It's like a poor man's beetle-in-a-box. The underwear has no place in the language game.

  22. Martha said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

    For me (in my early 30s and from the PNW), "long johns" is only the bottoms. "Thermal underwear" or "long underwear" can refer to any portion of the set.

    However, based on the conversation I had with my husband (same age, also from the PNW, but the other side of the Cascades) the other day, he probably disagrees. I asked him if he wanted my mom to get him more thermal underwear for Christmas (or "long underwear"; I can't really be sure, but I think I said "thermal") thinking the shirts. He answered regarding the pants, so I had to clarify. Although he didn't argue about my using the wrong terminology, so maybe he was just thinking oppositely.

    To specify the shirt, I'd say "thermal shirt," or just "thermal." (You might ask why I didn't say that to my husband the other day. We were talking about my mom getting him undershirts or thermals, so I probably thought it was clear from context.) Or, from my years in clothing retail, a "waffle-knit shirt," although I'd probably only use that to describe something with that knit but which was designed to be the outer layer.

    I think I agree with Ryan, though. It probably depends more on what your parents call the things than anyone else. I'm fairly certain this is the first time I've ever talked about the bottoms with anyone besides my parents or husband. (I have a feeling that the tops do get talked about more, just because they do get worn as top layers, or show if you wear a t-shirt over them.)

  23. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 11:08 pm

    Danish has at least 100 words for specific baked goods. My favorite is the "baker's sore eye," which is decorated with red jelly and yellow custard. I used to have to wait for a bus in Copenhagen and the stop was right in front of a stupendous bakery. The ladies behind the cases would not react to "one of those, please" but insisted on the correct nomenclature. They also made fun of my Swedish accent. Ah, how I miss those days!

    The Danes also have a sandwich called "veterinarian's midnight snack." Whaddaya know! It Googles.

  24. Joshua Crohn said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

    Growing up in minnesota, when we were told to put on our long johns, it was always referring to a one piece full body thermal.
    Living in Arizona now, long johns are exclusively a reference to donuts.

  25. ryan said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 11:22 pm

    My aversion to calling the top long johns may just reflect the fact that pants or slacks (and tights, my 4-year old daughter would insist) are plural nouns for a single garment, giving a legitimacy to long johns as a word for the bottoms. A plural noun for a top just seems wrong.

    Have you ever discussed why so many unitary garments that cover your legs but also your crotch can be plural nouns? I'm familiar with pantalones, but generally, is this true in other languages as well? Do they mostly evolve from garments that were pairs of leggings?

  26. Rob B said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 3:04 am

    Long johns means the trousers to me, but in use I would say 'thermals' for any combination of top and/or bottom. 40ish, UK

    @Rubrick Surely the most common name used as 'generic noun/verb/adjective' must be Jack. Once you start to think (or google) about it there are a myriad uses…
    Incidentally, drifting even further off topic, here in the U.K. most people my age or younger seem to have no idea that Jack is a diminutive of John, and are confused by us referring to our son as Jack when his given name is John. Jack has obviously established itself firmly as a name in its own right, but I wonder if there is more of a collective memory of this relationship in the US, perhaps helped by John/Jack Kennedy?

  27. Dick Margulis said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 6:53 am

    @Milan: I think the Pershing name was just a baker's joke adopted during World War I—sort of the Freedom Fries of its day.

    Wikipedia has this on the Bismark/Bismarck and long john: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berliner_(doughnut)#Regional_variations and this on the Pershing/Persian: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pershing_(doughnut).

  28. Cervantes said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 9:13 am


    Has the "Pershing" doughnut anything to do with the term "doughboy" for the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces?

    "Dough-boy" for "American soldier" pre-dates the AEF and, indeed, General Pershing himself. It's from the Civil War era or slightly before. Origin is uncertain but, yes, it may have come from a connection with pastry.

  29. Mr Punch said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 10:09 am

    Boston area, 70 (!) – Agree with those for whom "long johns" means long underwear pants, or by extension the ensemble. Has anyone mentioned the term "base layer"?

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    Rob B: "Jack" has been almost as popular as "John" for baby boys in this century, as you can see here. I do know a young man nicknamed Jack whose real name is John, but I think that the majority of Americans think of "Jack" as a name on its own. I'd guess it's also largely forgotten that "Nancy" was a nickname for "Agnes" and then "Ann".

  31. Rob said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

    For Faith's coding part of the proposed survey, she could try Google Forms. It apparently (I have no experience of it) can provide the tools for web interface and collection, and so on, of responses.

  32. Y said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

    Compare Caribbean bad john “bad guy”. Is john an empty noun used to scaffold a modifier, in some dialects?

  33. Xtifr said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    As a native Californian, I have only the vaguest idea of what the term means. Long underwear, in general, are not a big thing here. Especially in the coastal regions–it may be different in the mountains, where they have more than zero words for snow. :)

    In my mind, I picture a one-piece with a button-flap on the back, as seen in cartoons. But I'm not sure I've ever seen such a thing in real life. And, of course, we have a large population of out-of-state folks who may have their own conflicting definitions. So my own personal idiolect, influenced by random people over the years, may not be a reliable guide to the region, assuming the region even has a standardish definition.

  34. he said, she said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    Re Jack or John as the most generic male name. I nominate my name, Joe. Whenever I meet someone new at a large gathering with lots of new names, I say something like "I have the world's most forgettable name. Joe College. Joe Six-Pac. Joe Schmo. Joe the Plumber." (The last one was a real guy.) During a few subsequent encounters, folks have remembered my name and mentioned that they remember it because I told them it was so forgettable.

    Yes, John Doe appears frequently on toe tags and I used to see it on the likenesses of credit cards in magazine ads, so John Doe deserves consideration. Given that I've been cursed with a forgettable name, I must implore you to remember all us Joes. I've read about Joe Six-Pac in refereed academic papers. Cannot remember any now, but I'm imagining the topic was behavioral economics.

    In my third grade class of about 30 boys and girls, I was one of six boys named Joe. (Catholic grammar school in upstate New York.)

  35. Sarah said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

    UK, sixty-something. Long johns to me only means pants. Top would be thermal vest or T-shirt.

  36. he said, she said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    I just read "Some Tame Gazelle" by Barbara Pym. In it, the two main characters who are identified as "spinster sisters," complain frequently about the local vicar's indelicate habits of dress, particularly when he allows his "combinations" to show beneath the hems of his trousers. Because the narrative includes some discussion about how the weather is too mild to require such garments, I take it that "combinations" means long johns.

    Has anyone else ever heard "combinations" used this way?

    BTW, it is easy to imagine how the word could have been so appropriated. In previous comments to this very post, Vireya and one other commenter — I lost track of who — used the word "combination" to refer to thermal top and bottom.

  37. Rodger C said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

    Has anyone else ever heard "combinations" used this way?

    A children's rhyme from my mother's time (though not from her):

    Kaiser Bill went up the hill
    To conquer all the nations;
    Kaiser Bill came down the hill
    And split his combinations.

    I've read about Joe Six-Pac in refereed academic papers.

    Originally, I think, "Joe Sikspak" in an Art Buchwald column.

  38. a George said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

    In Denmark a 'Long John' is something completely different: a goods bicycle with a rather small front wheel operated via kind of a bell-crank mechanism and a platform for goods between the cyclist and the front wheel. I used one when I had a summer job as a hotel valet, and it was extremely rickety to ride with a full load of suitcases from the hotel to the airport bus. Hard-earned tips! Fortunately the centre of gravity was low.

  39. Kate Bunting said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 6:43 am

    When I read the references to union suits, I thought to myself 'I would call those combinations'. I learned from my parents, born in the early 20th century, that in their youth it was a term for a combined upper and nether undergarment (not necessarily of the thermal variety). My father had a story of a woman about to leave hospital after a long stay, who gave her husband a list of garments to bring for her, including 'combs'. He brought a (hair) comb instead of underwear.

  40. mollymooly said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 7:04 pm


    My aversion to calling the top long johns may just reflect the fact that pants or slacks (and tights, my 4-year old daughter would insist) are plural nouns for a single garment, giving a legitimacy to long johns as a word for the bottoms. A plural noun for a top just seems wrong.

    A "pair of pyjamas" used to refer only to the bottoms, as a binary pair. Nowadays I generally interpret "pair of pyjamas" to mean the top and bottoms seen as a complementary pair. Neither on its own constitutes "a pyjama".

  41. Faith said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    I'm appreciative of everyone's comments. I am finding great delight in the apparent chaos of this term. I do have to say about "Dr. Dentons"–to me, they are something you sleep in, and they have feet. Would not consider them the same as a union suit, although both have bum flaps.

  42. Allan from Nevada, Iowa said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

    When my household discusses food, Long Johns would more likely refer to the Long John Silvers chain of fish shops.

RSS feed for comments on this post