X pants

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A couple of days ago, Jessica Dweck wrote me with a question:

In the last few months there have been a couple of books out with "pants" in the title (Bossypants, Mr. Funnypants). So we were curious how people started adding "pants" to different words. In the OED, it looks like "fancy pants" came first, followed by "smarty pants." Using Google's n-gram (an admittedly imperfect tool), it looks like the use of "fancy pants" and "smarty pants" really took off around the year 1940. Do you have any theories as to why people started adding "pants" to words, and why the practice rose so precipitously in the latter half of the 20th century? Often the terms are paired with an honorific for comedic effect (e.g. Mr. Funnypants). How did that practice become popular?

I sent a quick answer, and a day later, sent a bit more. But meanwhile, Ms. Dweck's deadline had intervened ("How Did Tina Fey’s Pants Get So Bossy?", Slate 3/30/2011). So in keeping with my general practice, I'll post the rest of our Q&A.

My first answer:

The easiest part of this to answer is why things might have changed around 1940:

Smarty Pants
Music by Walter Donaldson, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Copyrighted October 27, 1939

At the races your horses come in one-two;
At a party you mix a fine drink;
In the moonlight you really know what to do.
Do I mind it? I don't think.

You old smarty pants,
Where'd you learn to dance?
Where'd you learn to throw that line?
How'd you learn to say the things you say
And say them in that city-slicker way?
You old smoothie pie,
Who taught you to sigh
With that honey in your glance?
When you do the things you do,
How can I help lovin' you,
You old smarty pants?

Obviously the "smarty pants" usage already existed in 1939. Note the parallel use of "smoothy pie" in this lyric.

I've got a working hypothesis about the milieu this came out of, but I'm not sure that it's right. I'll get back to you later if I can find anything useful.

The next day, I added:

In the end, I don't have a lot to add that's not obvious.

The "__-y pants" coinages are a kind of baby talk, related to "__-y pie" and "__-y poo" and so on, where by "baby talk" I mean the kind of language that mothers and other caregivers stereotypically use in addressing babies.

The "__-y p__" pattern seems to show up in print for the first time in the 1920s, usually in cases where baby-talk has been extended to talk with romantic partners or small pets. The OED's first citation for "sweetie-pie" is

1928 P. G. Wodehouse Money for Nothing iv. 76 ‘Hello, sweetie-pie,’ said Miss Molloy.

but we can also find e.g.

1922 Richard Edward Connell "Mr. Pottle and the One-Man Dog", 1922:
"Isn't he a love? isn't he just too sweet," cried Mrs. Pottle, emerging from the living room and catching the object up in her arms. "Come to mama, sweetie-pie. Did the nassy man frighten my precious Pershing?"

Although this extended baby-talk is sometimes used by men, it often seems to have been perceived as feminine and somewhat aggressive, even (mock-) frighteningly so. Thus

P.G. Wodehouse, "The Clicking of Cuthbert", 1922:

Vincent Jopp flushed darkly. Even the strongest and most silent of us have our weaknesses, and my employer's was the rooted idea that he looked well in knickerbockers. It was not my place to try to dissuade him, but there was no doubt that they did not suit him. Nature, in bestowing upon him a massive head and a jutting chin, had forgotten to finish him off at the other end. Vincent Jopp's legs were skinny.
"You poor dear man!" went on Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp. "What practical joker ever lured you into appearing in public in knickerbockers?"
"I don't object to the knickerbockers," said Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, "but when he foolishly comes out in quite a strong east wind without his liver-pad—-"
"Little Tinky-Ting don't need no liver-pad, he don't," said Mrs. Luella Mainprice Jopp, addressing the animal in her arms, "because he was his muzzer's pet, he was."
I was standing quite near to Vincent Jopp, and at this moment I saw a bead of perspiration spring out on his forehead, and into his steely eyes there came a positively hunted look. I could understand and sympathize. Napoleon himself would have wilted if he had found himself in the midst of a trio of females, one talking baby-talk, another fussing about his health, and the third making derogatory observations on his lower limbs. Vincent Jopp was becoming unstrung.

Most of the last decade's "-pants" books seem to me like a generalization of the grade-school slang seen in Junie B. Jones #21, Junie B., First Grader: Cheater Pants.

Barbara Park, who writes the Junie B. series, puts the same pattern in the mouth of a boy in Dear God, Help!!! Love, Earl: "So sue me, Mr. Big Fat Lawyer Pants!"

I'm guessing that the grade-school usage is a cutesy-pants generalization of the baby-talk pattern, probably in the first place by young girls.

I'm pretty sure that the Captain Underpants series is not the male version, but whether this all has anything to do with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is beyond me.

Although her piece was already up, Ms. Dweck responded:

Do you have any theories about why the "-y p__" construction might have popped up in the '20s, or why there's been such a steep rise in "pants" words in the last decade?

I didn't have a helpful answer:

In both cases, I think that we're up against the mystery of cultural contagion.

It's possible that the popularity of P.G. Wodehouse in the 1920s, or the Junie B. Jones books in the 1990s, had something to do with it. But it's also possible that they simply reflected something that was going on independently.

Having thought about it a bit more, I can add that the "<TITLE> X pants" boom seems to benefit to some extent from the Frequency Illusion.  Thus the COCA corpus has two instances of "Mr. Happy Pants", one of "Mr. Cranky Pants", one of "Miss Sulky Pants", and one of "Mrs. Cranky Pants", for a grand total of 5 "<TITLE> X pants" hits. (There are also four instances of "cranky pants" without a preceding title, and one each of "Mr. Hot Pants" and "Miss Hot Pants", which may refer to the garment type rather than to the wearer.) In contrast, there are 275 instances of "black pants", 208 intances of "khaki pants", 140 of "leather pants", and so on.


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    We cannot now avoid mentioning the award-winning Chicago blog mimi smartypants.

    In other topically relevant news, the other award-winning blog, Hullabaloo, in its 2011/03/american-justice.html edition, expressed, "nobody who isn't rich or powerful is held accountable for much of anything in this country." The rich and powerful, in other words, suffer not only the lion's share of the tax burden, but also of the nation's prosecutorial zeal.

  2. Colin John said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 6:48 am

    On a related note is the use of 'pants' adjectivally as a pejorative term common in US usage? In the UK it's been common for at least a decade to hear people say things like 'That's absolute pants' for something they consider rubbish or of poor quality.
    I believe it probably also contributed to the humour of the name of Spongebob Squarepants.
    Of course you have to bear in mind the difference in meaning of the word in BrE (pants = underpants).

    [(myl) I've never heard the "rubbish, nonsense" sense of pants used in U.S. English. I therefore doubt that it has anything to do with the Spongebob phenomenon, though you're right to observe that Spongebob can plausibly be seen as part of a larger cultural pants resonance, since he's figuratively as well as literally square.

  3. a George said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 6:52 am

    — but "Mr. Heavypants" must be suspected of something else than gravity-challenged undies.

  4. Clare said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 6:58 am

    Hm, maybe not terribly helpful but I associate -pants with -face, since my mother used both to describe everyone in the 1980s — especially if their name ended in -y. "Did you see Wendy-face? What's Marty-pants up to these days?" etc. Just more baby-talk I guess, especially as she was referring to other young children. But "face", of course, doesn't start with 'p'.

    [(myl) Good point — I should have thought of the "-face" case. But even though it's not /p/-initial, /f/ is not that far away in articulatory space. Another (marginal) labial-initial body-oriented monosyllable is "-butt", as in "Mr. Wiggly Butt" or "Ms. Fluffy Butt".

    And on reflection, the champion childhood X-<BODYPART> pattern is probably X-head, as a search for "you big * head" suggests. No labiality there, though.]

  5. Mar Rojo said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    Also, we get "x trousers".

    1. http://mr-shouty-trousers.com/

    2. "Mr. Tight Trousers" a track from the album The Knack… And How To Get It

    3. "Elsewhere, we discover the identity of pop’s Mr Clever Trousers (Green from Scritti Politti with ten O-Levels!);"


    And I've got an inkling that "x pants/trousers" combinations where used in the theatre as far back as the 15th century. I'll try to check it out.

  6. Mar Rojo said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    Could the root be Pantaloon/Pantalone from the Commedia dell'Arte?

  7. S. Norman said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    With bosypants I always read it as the pants giving you the power to be bossy, like a special uniform. Wear the pants and you get to be bossy. Along with 'who wears the pants in the family'.

  8. Tyro said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:19 am

    I'd always taken it as a bit of euphemism referring to a body part contained in the pants, but not spoken in polite company. Smarty Pants = Smart Ass. At least, that's the tone carried when people call me that…

  9. GeorgeW said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    Doesn't X pants have a masquerade connotation? Would we refer to a real authoritarian boss as 'bossypants?' Would Robin Williams be called 'funnypants?'

    If there is a masquerade feature, then an attire metaphor would make some sense, i.e. dressing as something one is not.

    [(myl) The word that I'd use for the connotation of these phrases is "childish". So when the kid in Barbara Park's book (cited above) says "So sue me, Mr. Big Fat Lawyer Pants!", he might be addressing an actual litigious adult lawyer, but he's doing it in a childish way. If an adult used that kind of language, the effect would be cast the whole exchange as a kind of childish joke. Ditto for referring to (say) the current Libyan dictator as "Bossypants Qaddafi".]

  10. Joseph Pendleton said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    The x-pants construction does seem to be based in children's speech, but searching through written records only tells us how adults have reconfigured what may or may not be childish speech.

    There is the possibility that it was being used as something of an intra-generational joke back in the '30s or '40s where people who grew up some 20 to 30 years earlier when it was used by kids started using it as adults in a playful manner. For example, if you use the word "bitchin'" today, people know you were in junior high school during the '80s and probably still have your Dead Milkmen albums in your attic.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    Other labial-initial examples might be -bones and -boots. As in lazy-bones, sneaky-boots.

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Also, Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption addresses Raquel Welch as fuzzy-britches:


  13. David L said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    And bossy-boots is the phrase familiar to me from childhood, before bossy-pants came along…

  14. Gamboling Lamb said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    My wife and I have been calling each other "Pants," "Face," and "Brains" as pet names since the first year we dated, and that was 10 years ago. That might be TMI, but it stems from the fact that we used so many cutesy [X Pants] and [X Face] constructions in our nicknames for each other that we eventually just shortened it. This was not a conscious decision; it just sort of evolved that way.

  15. Ø said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    I first encountered "bossy-boots" some 15 years ago when a baby-sitter from Ireland addressed my young son that way.

  16. cameron said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:36 am

    With regard to the usage "bitchin'" mentioned above. I think the Dead Milkmen's usage of that term was deliberately retro in the 80s context. In the 80s, that usage was indicative of an older person – a baby boomer who probably went to high school in the 60s. i.e. only someone so uncool and out of it as to actually drive a Camaro would ever have used the term "bitchin'" in the 80s.

  17. Jon said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    I wasn't aware of the usage of 'pants' as 'rubbish' in the UK until 2000, when there was a kerfuffle over the rejection of an asylum application. In a formal letter of refusal, the asylum seeker was told: "With regard to your claim to be a national of Afghanistan, the Secretary of State thinks that this is a pile of pants."

  18. sam said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    Isn't this just another example of the kind of periphrastic semantic diffusion that lead to (e.g.) the way adverbs are formed in Spanish & French?

    "hasty" (adj) -> "mr hasty-pants" (noun)
    "rapido" (adj) -> "rapidamente" (adv, orig. rapida mente, "(with a) rapid mind, rapid-mindedly")

  19. bfwebster said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    Don't forget Mr Green Jeans from Captain Kangaroo!

  20. ShadowFox said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    A very quick Google Books search found four instances of "Smartie-pants" form 1935-7, including one "Mr. Smartie-pants". Another vector might have been Bob Hope's 1950 "Fancy Pants" (with Lucille Ball, 1949 script), followed by Allan Drury's use of "Mr. Fancy-Pants" in one of his novels in the early 1960s. As shocking as it may sound, Drury was once popular.

  21. rea said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    Do not underestimate the influence of Sponge Bob Squarepants in this connection.

  22. Mark Mandel said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    (W.A.G.) Any possibility of a connection to "bankrupt my pants"? About 3,960 raw Google hits. Apparently coined 2006-04-20 by Mike Whitaker on, and with respect to, LiveJournal. It's cited and defined here as follows:

    —begin quote—
    One of my English friends created a not-quite-acronym in spring 2006 that adequately describes the phenomenon of having been too busy to read one's blog roll, a translation from

    been away, not catching up on the flist [friends' list, one's blogroll on Livejournal], point me at it if there's anything you need me to see

    which he noted reads disturbingly like 'bankrupt my pants.'
    —end quote—

    So it's not in wide use, but to people in LJ communities where it's common it may seem so (e.g. here), and could have filtered out since then into extended uses like the titles discussed.

  23. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    From Firefly, or possibly Serenity: Kaylee uses a literal and metaphorical version by calling Mal "Cap'n Tightpants".

  24. Chandra said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    It seems likely to me that "fancy-pants" arose first due to the homophony between the two words, and I'm sure there are other examples where a similar process has taken place, but I can't think of any. (E.g., something like "silly-billy" arising first, and then "-billy" being combined with other, non-homophonous words.)

    Somewhat off-topic, but this discussion makes me wonder where the intensifier "-ass" came from, in phrases like "That's one big-ass truck" or "Don't give me some lame-ass reply". Surely this has been discussed before on LL? I can't seem to find a relevant post, though.

    [(myl) I don't think we've discussed that particular construction, oddly enough — but see "New intensifiers", 8/16/2004; "The intensified crack of dawn", 5/7/2005.]

  25. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    For the "linguistics in the comics" angle, here's an instance of "Princess Demandy-pants": http://www.webcomicsnation.com/memberimages/sh101116as_she.jpg

  26. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    If I had to speculate on X-ass constructions, my bet would place the origin on "dumb-ass." I'm not sure how old it is in English, but the German equivalent, "dummer esel," is at least as old as Beethoven. (Part of a biopic I saw quoted him complaining that someone editing his music was doctoring, I think, his metronome notations.)

    Anyway, it's easy to imagine widespread use of dumb-ass leading to an analysis of -ass as an all-purpose postfix. It also has that edgy ambiguity we like so much (if it's the vulgar form of "butt" it's naughty, but I can always plead "donkey" (Beethoven's meaning) and get away with it.)

  27. sptrashcan said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Another recent internet-famous -pants:


  28. m.m. said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    Re: OP – There's also "mattypants", extending it to names [matthew/matt/etc in this case] . I can't recall it occurring with other names though.

    Re: Colin John – "Pants" as a pejorative is definitely a UK thing. The only reason I've known a fellow statesman to recognize the usage would be because of large amounts of BrE exposure. Mine was through speaking with BrE speakers, and when 'pants' came out, I had to look it up to see what they meant.

    [(myl) Good point — I should have thought of the "-face" case. But even though it's not /p/-initial, /f/ is not that far away in articulatory space. Another (marginal) labial-initial body-oriented monosyllable is "-butt", as in "Mr. Wiggly Butt" or "Ms. Fluffy Butt".

    And on reflection, the champion childhood X- pattern is probably X-head, as a search for "you big * head" suggests. No labiality there, though.]

    Some of us have "Face head", as in "you big face head". Face Head||facehead.

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    I suddenly recall that I used to address my son, when he was under 5, as Sir Nico-pants.

    It seems clear that the British sense of "pants" must refer to what ends up in them if you're unfortunate. We see this in the epithet for the astroturf blog concentrator, Pajamas Media, as "Pantload Media".

  30. Nyq Only said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

    Smarty-pants, clever-clogs, bossy-boots. More schoolyard than baby-speak I think.

  31. tired of blogs said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    An episode of Psych featured a crotchety gun-toting farmer whom Shawn referred to as "Farmer McShootypants." My kids love that name.

  32. Chandra said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff: Thanks for your input. I'm delighted by the idea of Beethoven having called someone a dumb-ass.

  33. Monica said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    Just a note on the off-topic "ass" comment by Chandra: one of our former grad students wrote a great pseudo-abstract for our pseudo-linguistics conference, MILC, titled "Serious-ass Morphology: The Anal Emphatic in English." You can get to it at the MILC webpage (http://monicamacaulay.com/MILC.html) and it's in the program for MILC 2.

    [(myl) For the convenience of our readers, I've taken the liberty of extracting the abstract for this interesting paper here.]

  34. Don said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

    The pants term that strikes me as a trend or fad (recency illusion?), particularly in business, is "big-boy pants," or a variation of it. For example, "I knew when I took this job that I was going to have to put on my big-girl pants every day and just handle those problems when they came up."

  35. Nathan said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    Man, that's a sweet ass-car.

  36. Joseph Pendleton said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

    Anybody who was cool in the '80s wasn't.

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff: The King James version of 2 Peter 2:16 is "But was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man's voice forbad the madness of the prophet."

    I'm not sure this subject is off-topic; I think there's something to be said for the theory that smarty-pants is a euphemism for smart-ass, as in kick in the pants, and the theory that ass postpositive (there's got to be a way to get posterior in there) comes from a reanalysis of dumb ass.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 11:28 pm

    The on-line OED isn't cooperating now, so I'll mention that the oldest citation of bitchin' I know is from Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), where it's spoken by a Real Estate Man. I think it was greatly popularized by Frank and Moon Zappa's song "Valley Girl" (1982); that's certainly where I first heard it.

    @Joseph Pendleton: It is not true, though, that everyone who wasn't cool in the '80s was.

  39. Joseph Pendleton said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 12:33 am

    @Jerry Friedman. Undeniably.

  40. Fred said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    As an American English speaker, I indeed *have* heard "pants" in use in the US like the British counterpart mentioned above ("that's pants!"). It reminds me of "that's the shit" and "that's (the) tits". (both antonyms to "that's pants")

    As for fancy pants, besides the rhyming, I wonder if there is a nice historical story to go with it… like maybe having fancy pants actually was a "thing" (as opposed to not having fancy pants… indicating wealth/poverty). Depression era maybe? (it sounds like something I'd hear the Lil' Rascals say) But I'm just an armchair analyst of such things. Surely the rhyming in the phrase plays some big part of its popularity (and maybe its coinage)

  41. Fred said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 1:02 am

    note to self: read citations before commenting.

  42. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 3:42 am

    Hm. Well, I use that format all the times: for example, I often refer to a cat as "Captain Lickypants" if they are bathing when I enter the room and "Señor(it/a) Bossypants" is what I call a cat demanding attention. I agree it's a "childish" construction: people do tend to use baby-speak when talking to pets for some inexplicable reason and this appears to be my version thereof.

  43. John Lawler said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    This just in, via Regretsy: SpongeBob Jewpants.

  44. Jody Pants. said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    Long, long ago, I was invited by my friend to open up a show he was playing at a local coffee house. I didn't want to use my given last name, so I tried to think of an inherently funny word, and use it as my stage surname. I settled on "pants," but wanted to emphasize the absurdity of it by having it spelled in all-capitals, with an exclamation mark. (I was 18, cut me some slack.) Sure enough, within days, people referring to me as Jody-pants. In fact, to this day, over ten years later, people who never came to that show, who lived in other states, and who have never met any of the people I associated with at that point, still somehow have caught on, and refer to me as "Jody-pants." Linguistic-memetics in action, perhaps? For me, just a bizarre annoyance.

  45. Kapitano said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    I've heard pretentious rich women referred to in UK English as Mrs Tweedy-Knickers. But I can't think of any other X+Knickers examples, so it may have been just a passing fashion among a small group.

    But what about X+ass? Dumbass, Weirdass, Badass, Lameass, Hotass, Lazyass etc?

  46. maidhc said,

    April 2, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    As another data point, take the Australian children's books about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, written by May Gibbs and first published in 1918.

    "Bitchin'" (or "bitchen") is described by Tom Wolfe in The Pump House Gang as in common usage among southern California youth circa 1964.

  47. Bob C said,

    April 3, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    The now-closed Broadway musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" had the tag line "History just got all sexypants"

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