Ever wondered why we say ‘a pair of pants’ or ‘a pair of jeans’ when there is only one piece of clothing involved?
It is one of those questions that you may not notice for a long time but when you do, they stick to you and keep bugging you until you find the answer.
That is exactly why we have hunted down all possible solutions to this question; just for you!
May as well save yourself from the struggle of googling it; and finding a bunch of pages with illogical ideas, thoughts and opinions.
So… let’s start-off with the basic origin of this phrase.
The usage of the term ‘a pair of jeans’ originates from the time when people started calling different objects in plural forms as pairs.
This usage did not exist before 1297 AD.
Isn’t it amazing how language changes with time?
The word ‘pair’ comes from the Latin language and it means ‘two things’.
Originally, pants were two separate pieces that you put on each leg at a time.
These articles of clothing were known as pantaloons.
People would wear two pieces separately on both legs and then secure them around their waists.
So, people used to call it a pair of pantaloons and this phrasing remains till today even when pants are made as a single garment.
People often come up with the question like: Why do we have to use the word ‘pair’ for a single piece of clothing when all other single items are referred to as one and not pair?
Even if we consider it as a linguistic oddity, we should be able to make some sense out of it.
You see, the word pants fall into the category of plurale tantum which is defined in Oxford Dictionary as a noun that is only used in plural forms.
Now, the items that are actually a single thing but can be divided into two parts or consist of two parts can be categorized as plural in the English Language.
And these nouns require the use of the phrase ‘a pair of..’. Think of such items and then imagine the similarities. Let me tell you, for instance, a pair of glasses, scissors, jeans etc.
Many people who are learning English as a second language or even native speakers might come up with another question at this point: Why not use ‘a pair’ for a shirt when it also has two sleeves. Well, it does not work that way. Shirt is not a plurale tantum.
Let’s see what more explanation we have floating around.
Here are the two major theories that most linguists agree on for the explanation of this linguistic oddity.
The first theory comes from the history of pants.
We’ve already learned how pants were originally pantaloons, two separate pieces worn separately on each leg, and finally secured at the waist.
So, the first theory is all about how the pantaloons were basically two items. Calling them as a pair did make sense. And this practice was retained even after pantaloons became pants and were crafted into a single article of clothing.
Not only the jeans but also the underpants are referred to as a pair of underpants. They consist of two parts just like the pants.
The second theory derives from the word ‘pants’ itself.
The Oxford Dictionary defines pants as a plural tantum. And as we already know, anything can be categorized as a plural tantum that is a single piece of item but can be divided into two.
Some of you might counter-question: Why not use this phrase for other pieces of clothing such as a shirt when it also has two sleeves?
So to answer that, shirts were always made in a single piece. Nothing ever inspired anyone to call them a pair even with two sleeves.
Learning the origin and basis of things does prove to be beneficial to answer the whys and hows that come flooded into your mind.
Language is so deep that questions like these keep arising in everyone’s mind. SO, if you have that curious mind, just keep on hunting for the answers. There is always some logic behind the existence of a thing (even a phrase in a language).
I’ll conclude the discussion on the note that there are always multiple theories to explain and justify something. In this very article, we discussed a couple of explanations about the usage of the phrase ‘a pair of jeans’.
Some of you may be convinced by the first one or the other. Others can combine both to answer their questions. You can use both or whichever seems rational to make sense in your mind.