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In the UK, I've heard pants being used as slang for underpants (or was it in Bridget Jones' Diary?), whereas in India it almost exclusively means "trousers".

Describing the meaning of "put your pants on one leg at a time", this link says:

To say that someone puts their pants on one leg at a time means that the person is a human being no different from anyone else.

The idiom's origin seems to refer to trousers but I'm wondering whether someone reading this might think "underpants" rather than trousers?

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Another interesting question is why "pants" has always meant "trousers" in India, given that Indian usage typically follows/followed British English… has there been a change in British English? –  ShreevatsaR Jan 28 '11 at 6:04
    
@ShreevatsaR : exactly - which i why i mentioned India - we usually speak/follow UK and not US English –  JoseK Jan 28 '11 at 9:03

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

In the UK "Pants" typically refers to underwear.
(Where it is also a slang term for "bad". As in "That's pants".)

In other parts of the world, notably the USA, "pants" refers to trousers.

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Ok, so any Brit would think "underpants" even for the phrase? –  JoseK Jan 27 '11 at 10:27
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No, any Brit would think trousers. Generally underpants don't have legs. –  user3444 Jan 27 '11 at 10:32
    
@josek with regards the phrase, it doesn't matter which meaning of "pants" is used, the implication is that the person has 2 legs and that they put one of their legs in to the article of clothing at a time. (Variations in ways of getting dressed notwithstanding.) –  Matt Lacey Jan 27 '11 at 10:37
    
Ha, that's weird. I've never thought of it as referring to the person's legs, only trouser legs. I wonder, would you say 'He puts his jacket on one arm at a time' or 'one sleeve at a time'...? –  user3444 Jan 27 '11 at 10:41
    
@ElendilTheTall I put the jacket ON one of my arms at a time. Or I put my arms IN one of the sleeves at a time. –  Matt Lacey Jan 27 '11 at 11:06

In US usage pants means trousers.
In UK usage pants means underpants.

The popularity of US films and TV programmes means that most English speakers are likely to have some awareness of the US usage and will correctly understand phrases that use pants to mean trousers.

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Yes, most people will understand the US usage in context but it can cause hilarity - such as when an American girl tells a Scottish guy he has nice pants. –  neil Mar 16 '12 at 11:04
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And a disaster when an Am. guy tells a Scott. girl. –  Kris Apr 21 '12 at 14:41

In Britain, pants almost always refers to underpants (and more specifically men's underpants). 'Trousers' is used everywhere 'pants' is in US English, including the idiom you refer to.

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In British English, pants means underpants or, informally, nonsense. In American English, pants means trousers; the singular form is used as adjective.

[BrEn] He thought we were going to be absolute pants.
[AmEn] His pant leg was broken.

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Not so much "nonsense" as "dreadful". I remember very clearly the first time I heard this piece of slang (around 1996), and while in context I understood what was meant, I found it very strange. –  Colin Fine Jan 27 '11 at 15:32

In Australian usage, 'pants' usually (but not always) refers to 'trousers'. From the Macquarie Dictionary:

  1. trousers.
  2. underpants, especially women's.
  3. (phrase) be caught with one's pants down, Colloquial to be caught unexpectedly and ill-prepared.
  4. by the seat of one's pants, Colloquial a. without the benefit of prior instruction. b. deprived of the technical aids usually available, as in the case of an aircraft pilot with faulty instruments.
  5. get into someone's pants, Colloquial to have sexual intercourse with someone.
  6. ... the pants off someone, Colloquial (humorous) used after a verb, as an intensifier: that lecturer bores the pants off me; this'll scare the pants off her; I'll sue the pants off him!
  7. wear the pants, to be the dominant partner in a relationship. [abbreviation of pantaloons]

Interestingly, the loan-word 'pantsu' (パンツ) in Japanese suffers from the same conflicted identity - it can mean either underpants or trousers (though perhaps the former is more common).

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'... it can mean either...' That would be even worse, actually. –  Kris Apr 21 '12 at 14:49

I'm English and I've never called underpants "pants" this is a relatively recent use of the word from about the early Nineties. I went to 8 different schools around England, north and south, in the Seventies (don't ask) no one ever called underpants "pants".

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Certainly growing up in the eighties, I never heard "underpants" used in ordinary speech. When I did come across it it seemed pretentious - why would you call them as "_under_pants" when there is no other sort of pants (in BrE). –  neil Mar 16 '12 at 11:00
    
I went to fewer schools in the Seventies although we did move around the country, but "underpants" was hardly ever used. The early-Nineties phenomenon is the pejorative use of "pants" as "dreadful" (which does mean that the word itself is more common since then). –  Andrew Leach Apr 21 '12 at 14:27

In the UK, I've heard pants being used as slang for underpants (or was it in Bridget Jones' Diary?), whereas in India it almost exclusively means "trousers".

First of all, that is not slang. Pants is the normal word in the UK. There is a difference in use of the word in different forms of English. In American English, it means what is known as trousers in the UK. If pants is used in India with the American definition, that suggests an American influence on the English learnt there.

This page explains it: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/pants_1?q=pants

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