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We say (a pair of) trousers, (a pair of) scissors. For these two particular words, is/was there something like "a trouser" or "a scissor"? Did it use to mean anything?

E.g. in Czech, the word for scissors is also plural but is derived from "knives". So I was wondering if the pair-words like these are derived from some (now forgotten) words with a meaning in singular. Similarly, the Slovak word for trousers is a plural of a Czech word meaning "a single trouser leg". (Czech and Slovak are very close.)

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Related: Why is the word “pants” plural? – FumbleFingers Jun 29 '14 at 15:07
The pair part is a Dual marker; trousers, like pants, panties, glasses, spectacles, binoculars, legs, arms, feet, twins, and thumbs, are things that occur in pairs and couples, and are thus quantified with pair/couple of. But of course these things are mostly singular; it's only the human-projected dual nature of the objects that qualifies as a plural. P-I-E had dual inflections; English has almost no inflection, so English duals are all special words like the ones above, or both or either. – John Lawler Jun 29 '14 at 18:03
@JohnLawler Well, OE had some dual forms, but they went the way of all things. I seem to remember that the pronouns tended to end in -t, which I could never tell was because of we two or just the general t- used in second persons (think tu, te). – tchrist Jun 30 '14 at 5:13
@tchrist: OE wit (we two), git (you two). Modern English still has a dual: yiz, youze, yous. – TRomano Dec 3 '14 at 14:50
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Scissors apparently derives form the plural of the Latin cīsōrium for cutting tool, as does chisel.

Scissor is used in modern times in the singular as a verb, so "a scissor" is not necessarily (grammatically) wrong.

The excellent answer FumbleFingers pointed to for pants covers that subject fully.

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There are a lot of tools in English that are made of two parts and are plural: shears, scissors, tweezers, pliers, clippers, tongs, bellows, pincers. English uses plurals for these, but that doesn't mean that they come from a singular word that meant just one of the two parts.

Consider tongs. This word was derived from the Old English word tang (plural tangan) which was singular and meant a pair of tongs. The cognates in Danish (tang, meaning tongs or forceps), German (Zange, meaning pliers, pincers, or tongs), Dutch (tang, meaning pliers or tongs) are all singular. The first citation the OED has for a plural form meaning "a pair of tongs" is from 890, and the last for a singular form meaning "a pair of tongs" is from 1480. So somewhere between late Old English and Middle English, it changed its plurality.

The same thing happened with bellows. It (bælg) was singular in Old English, and the last singular use the OED knows about is from the 15th century.

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As you suspected, the OED derives trousers from “trouse” referring to an article of clothing later described as “drawers or knee-breeches”.

Singular “scissor” is uncommon but OED cites several sources where authors have used it in place of the more common plural. A more common use of the singular form is to form compound words as in “scissor-hands”. Both forms seem to be used since being introduced to English by Anglo-Normans. A better fit to your Czech example may be “shears” where the singular form is usually employed as a verb meaning “to cut”.

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"Shear" as a verb does not exactly qualify as the singular form of the plural noun "shears." – Brian Donovan Jun 29 '14 at 16:04
@BrianDonovan has very cleverly conflated word usage with word form. Surely no reasonable person will deny “shear” exactly qualifies as “shear”. – Gary Hoffman Jun 30 '14 at 19:28
@technolepsy: I don't understand what point you're trying to make. Scissor can be a verb, or it can be a singular noun that only really occurs as a combining form or adjectival. Shear is exactly the same way. – Marthaª Dec 3 '14 at 18:24
@Marthaª: You are, of course, correct. Apparently I have a peculiar aversion to the use of scissor as a verb. – Gary Hoffman Dec 21 '14 at 16:56

I think you may find that it is not necessarily incorrect to use "a pants" or "a scissors". Historically a pant was a single leg covering. Pants are now a garment with two legs as attached. If one leg is removed the garment is considered incomplete. Therefore "a pants" is a recognized garment of clothing that has two Pant Legs and the use of "a" refers to "A Garment" called pants. The same can be applied to scissors - originally derived from Latin for "cutting tool". Without both blades a scissors does not transform into a "scissor". In effect it ceases to be a cutting tool. Hence a "scissors" is cutting tool with two blades that "shear".

Consider: in our developing language it is somewhat anachronistic that some (especially in the tertiary world) still choose to enforce historic (and often poorly understood) conventions.

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