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I wonder what it means by "someone is in his/her underwear" both literally and figuratively? For example:

When people downvote your posts arbitrarily just imagine them in their underwear.

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How is this a question about language? –  FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 23:43
    
@Will Hunting: I only get one closevote, and it's currently the only one. I don't mind a certain amount of trivial "forum discussion" in comments, but so far as questions and answers are concerned, ELU is supposed to be a site for "linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts". Frankly, the fact that this question is taken seriously suggests ELU is in danger of becoming an Emperor with new clothes –  FumbleFingers Mar 17 '12 at 15:24
    
@FumbleFingers: With all due respect, I believe questions about meanings of phrases, words and idioms are relevant here. They are part of English and its usage, and always part of any kind of human language. If this question is taken seriously, then it means there are (most?) people who also think this way. Speaking of linguists, I agree with you, but I remember some of my previous questions here regarding English grammar were suggested off topic and to be asked on lingusitics.SE. –  Tim Mar 17 '12 at 15:39
    
@Tim: As I keep saying, I am only one voice here. Obviously the text string "imagine them in their underwear" is an example of English language, so you can make out a case for discussing it here, but I think it trivialises the site. At the other end of the spectrum, some questions are at such a rarefied level I think they're better suited to linguistics.SE. I'm not sure I can precisely define the lower and upper limits for what I'd like to see here, but I know this question falls off the bottom end for me. –  FumbleFingers Mar 17 '12 at 15:43
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I've only heard this expression in the context of being coached for public speaking, precisely as Sam I Am mentioned in his comment. (Quite frankly, I'm not so sure it's good advice, as I don't know how such mental imagery would help me concentrate on my speech - but that's another matter).

As for incorporating it into everyday speech, I'd (a) use it sparingly, and (b) say it as if everyone has already heard this somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of mentally equalizing people before. If overused, it could definitely turn into something that sounds rather juvenile.

As for your follow-on question (Can someone get in trouble for saying it?): Mentally undressing someone can be a form of sexual harassment. If you said, "Oh, just imagine them all in their underwear," in the workplace, and one person mistakenly felt you meant that literally, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that a complaint could be filed.

In this particular case, there's perhaps a thin line between using the idiom as a mere expression, and actually carrying out the words in a literal and leering way. So, if you're in a zero-tolerance environment, you might want to use a different idiom, just to be on the safe side. One such idiom I've heard is, "He puts his pants on one leg at a time." Ironically, that still revolves around people in a half-dressed state, but at least they're donning their clothes, instead of having them removed.

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It is literal - you are meant to imagine people in their underwear. It's meant to be an equalizer of sorts, underneath our clothes we're all the same. Where I live, people more frequently say 'Imagine them naked', we're not so prudish.

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+1 Thanks! Is it a derogatory expression or neutral one? –  Tim Mar 16 '12 at 23:31
    
Neutral - like I said, it's meant to equalize you - particularly when you are feeling nervous. –  salmonmoose Mar 16 '12 at 23:53
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A tip I hear about getting over stage fright is "picture the audience in their underwear." –  Sam I Am Mar 17 '12 at 0:01
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Thanks, @will and sam! Is it possible that the person using the expression will be mistaken as sexaholic, and conducting sexual harassment? –  Tim Mar 17 '12 at 0:11
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In the workplace, there is a definite risk of that, yes. It's not an overly common expression; best policy is to not be offended if you hear it, and avoid using it if you aren't sure you won't offend. –  Karl Knechtel Mar 17 '12 at 2:12
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