What’s in a name?
We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.
Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name. In modern Greek, επώνυμο (eponimo) is the word for “surname”.
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What the word refers to …
In British English, it refers exclusively to an item of underclothing for girls and women, defined by the OED as “With pl. concord. A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.”
Here’s a rather glamorous pair:
In American English it also refers to loose-fitting breeches that are gathered at the knee, known in full as knickerbockers. Once standard issue for several sports, they still occasionally appear, as in this cycling gear
that only the most robustly testosteronic males could get away with — and even then…
That meaning explains why, in this quote, Bobby [a boy] is not, as might appear to British readers, indulging an unhealthy fetish for ladies underwear:
Bobby was wearing new lace-up shoes and knickers with long, thick socks like most of the boys in my school.
Hudson Review, Autumn 2004.
In BrE it is also a very mild exclamation of irritation or contempt: “Oh, knickers to the lot of them!”
The OED records that expletive use from nearly half a century ago, (1971) and it now sounds to me positively mealy-mouthed or old-maidish.
The idiom “to get one’s knickers in a twist” or variations on that theme (“…in a knot/bunch/crease, Calvins in a wad/bunch/crease”), meaning to become angry, upset, or agitated, though still most frequent in British English, seems to sit comfortably in World English — or so GloWbE data suggests. This is from Canada,
So if Harper doesn’t mind his party’s social conservatives getting their knickers in a twist about same-sex marriage at this early stage of his mandate…
and this from Nigeria,
Quit getting those puritanical knickers in a twist?
The OED records the phrase from 26 June, 1971, in that venerable British communist organ The Morning Star:
Britain’s Foreign Office mandarins have had their knickers in a twist for the past fortnight.
“Knickers” is short for “knickerbockers”.
In 1809, the American novelist Washington Irvine published a History of New York, under the pseudonym of and purporting to be by one Diedrich Knickerbocker. The surname Knickerbocker, and close spelling variants, is Dutch and goes back to the earliest days of New York as a Dutch colony (New Amsterdam), and Irvine used the word to satirize conservative, upper-crust New Yorkers.
The dreadful Knickerbocker custom of calling on everybody.
Longfellow, Journal, 1 Jan, 1856
And nowadays it is still occasionally used to refer to New Yorkers (marked in the Oxford Dictionary Online as “informal”, but in Merriam-Webster as “broadly”):
Sex and the City unfolds in an elite New York that Edith Wharton or Nelson Rockefeller wouldn’t recognize. In this city, merit, not pedigree, rules. Unlike the old Knickerbocker establishment, where birth and breeding gave social standing, in this democratic meritocracy it is the prestige of your job that tells us where you are in the social order.
City Journal (New York), autumn 2003.
How was the name applied to the garment?
An edition of the book was illustrated by George Cruikshank (who also illustrated some of Dickens’s work, most notably Oliver Twist), and in it people are shown wearing knee breeches. Soon the word became popular to refer to this kind of trousers, and also to a ladies undergarment, which similarly extended as far as the knee, but has over time become shortened to its modern size — somewhat like the word itself.
The two earliest OED examples for those meanings are:
1881 R. Jefferies Wood Magic I. i. 15 It was not in that pocket, … nor in his knickers.
(British, but the OED marks this use as “now U.S.”)
1882 Queen 7 Oct. 328/3, I recommend … flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat.
The OED also includes an amusing citation from Shaw, in which the word must be taken to refer to breeches:
Laws … are amended and amended and amended like a child’s knickers until there is hardly a shred of the first stuff left.
G. B. Shaw The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism i. 2, 1928.
The OED also notes the following phrase from the 1966 Lern Yerself Scouse: “Ee’s got both legs in one knicker, he is not playing [football] well.” A Google suggests that this phrase is as much talked about as used, which is not very often in either case.
Talking of idioms, one of my British favourites is “all fur coat and no knickers.” According to the Online Oxford Dictionary elegantly objective lexicographerse it means to “Have an impressive or sophisticated appearance which belies the fact that there is nothing to substantiate it: ‘the government’s policies are all fur coat and no knickers.'”
How common it really is, I’m not sure. In both GloWbE and the NOW corpus it occurs only 9 times. Googling it doesn’t help a lot, because a play and a clothing outlet bear the name, but it does throw up the dissonant and possibly doubly fetishistic, “British Gas’ ‘plumbing superheroes’ are all fur coat and no knickers.”
Do only Brits wear “knickers”?
The Oxford Dictionary Online labels them “British”, while Merriam-Webster labels this meaning “chiefly British”. The Oxford English Corpus (March 2013 data) paints a different picture, illustrating yet again how the boundaries between different varieties of English are fuzzy.
The total for the string “knickers” in the corpus is 2,827. Filtering out variations on “to get one’s knickers in a twist” leaves 2,526.
Of those, 1,658 (65.6%) are British, 221 (8.7%) American, and 118 (4.7%) Australian. While several of the American English examples refer to knickerbockers, some mirror the British English meaning. Clearly, in the following light-hearted example, the word is used as part of a repertoire of synonyms:
Firstly, Deb is organizing Operation Panty Drop, delivering brand-spankin’-new underpants to people in Houston who’ve been displaced and dispossessed by the hurricane. Send new knickers only, please — seriously, how would you feel if someone handed you a pair of used panties? Well, okay, it depends on the panties, I KNOW THAT, but pretend you don’t get turned on by things like that and just mail her a couple of new pairs of Hanes or something.
Blog (written by a woman), 2005.
Don’t you just love the name of the appeal!