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I saw the phrase “put somebody's pants on’ in today’s ‘Quote of the Day” of Washington Post (July 17). It quotes the following remark of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital in an interview Monday (July 16) morning:

You know, this is a campaign for president of the United States. Mitt Romney is running for president of the United States, and he and his campaign leadership need to put their big boy and big girl pants on and defend his record.

No English online dictionaries of Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam-Webster carries ‘put one's pants on.’ Google Ngram registers ‘put one's pants on” neither.

I found an example of ‘Put Pants’ in the heading of the following text in Google:

“Put pants on before you "hangout" with President Obama on Google+ Google+, impervious to the teasing of tech-bloggers, marches on. Now with more than 90 million users, they just picked up a rather prominent one.”

I don't know what the writer is talking about.

Although the word, ‘put one's pants on’ doesn’t seem to me a word of very good taste, nor worth adding to my repertory, what does it mean? Does it mean to ‘behave in disciplined manner’?

Is it a well-received English phrase as used publicly by DNC Chair, and specifically quoted in Washington Post?

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"one's pants" isn't usually used as a neutral term. Here is a link to the Ngram comparing the appearances of "big boy pants" and "big girl pants" - books.google.com/ngrams/… –  Zoot Jul 17 '12 at 12:58
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5 Answers

up vote 34 down vote accepted

In the United States, toilet-training a child typically starts with diapers. An intermediate step is "trainers" or "pull-ups", which are basically diapers with elastic: the kid gets used to the idea that s/he shouldn't just "let go" at any moment, but the absorption is there so that it's not a total disaster if it happens.

Finally, when the kid has demonstrated his/her self-control, the much-anticipated "big girl pants" or "big boy pants" are awarded: the first pair of underwear (and whatever clothes go on top) that don't humiliate the kid.

"Put on your big boy/girl pant/ies" is a playful but rather insulting way of saying that, up till now, you've been acting like a child who hasn't been potty-trained yet: time to grow up and act like an adult. This is definitely a slang usage; used among friends in an obviously-joking way it probably won't cause offense, but in any other context it could be quite offensive.

Your second example (Put pants on before you "hangout" with President Obama on Google+) is in a completely different context, and is meant to be funny but not insulting. Google+ hangouts are multi-person video chats; the writer is referring to the fact that many people these days dress extremely casually (or don't dress at all!) when chatting by video; if you're going to chat with the President of the United States, it would be best to put on some pants first. (To hang out is a slang phrase meaning "to socialize in an informal setting", a hangout is a place where people hang out. In this article, there's an implied, slightly risqué third meaning: a certain part of your anatomy might "hang out" if you're not wearing pants.)

Finally, a note on American/British usage:

  • in American English, pants are synonymous with trousers, while panties are girls' or women's underwear.
  • in British usage, pants are always underwear - men's or women's. (Edit: @BrianNixon informs me that "pants" is more likely to be men's underwear; women's are more usually called knickers.
  • the Brits also use pants as a negative slang adjective, in much the same way that an American would say crap. (In other words, it's a "dirty" word - little kids shouldn't use it - but it's not very offensive, and it's used for humorous effect.) A person who's just cooked a meal for a friend - and has only just realized that it came out badly - might say "This is pants, isn't it?" by way of apology.
  • Mad as pants is British slang for "crazy", either a person or an idea.
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@MT_Head.Thanks to your answer, I got the meaning of the second quote from Google which was beyond my comprehension. I wouldn’t be able to decode it otherwise, e.g. from dictionaries, text books, and NHK (National TV)’s English language course. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 17 '12 at 7:13
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@YoichiOishi - George Bernard Shaw (is supposed to have) said that Britain and the US are "two nations divided by a common language." The same applies to the entire English-speaking world - we use most of the same words, and we expect to be understood... but we forget that we're basically all making it up as we go along. Sometimes American popular culture reminds me of little kids inventing a private language and then laughing at the neighbor kids because they don't understand. I always enjoy your questions; they remind me of how weird we really are, and must seem to the rest of the world. –  MT_Head Jul 17 '12 at 7:38
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@MT: Good points about AmE vs. BrE; I’d add that in the UK pants is more likely to refer to men’s than women’s undies (which are perhaps more commonly called knickers). And what you call diapers, we call nappies... –  Brian Nixon Jul 17 '12 at 10:50
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I've noticed the use of "pants" as an adjective is a source of extreme befuddlement to Americans online, so its probably not a good slang word to use if you're trying to communicate with them. Its as if someone had referred to a situation as "carrot". –  T.E.D. Jul 17 '12 at 16:55
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The inclusion of a modifier like "big boy/girl" is crucial to the meaning: stop behaving childishly.

The expression alludes to literally telling a child to put on more mature clothes, "big boy/girl" being used in place of "mature" for ease of comprehension. One might literally tell a child to "put on their big boy pants" before a formal event. By association, the instruction also implies that one should act more maturely.

As used in the referenced quote, the speaker is deliberately condescending, treating the Romney campaign as children and telling them to act less childish.

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It basically means that the person should man up, step up, or take responsibility depending on context. You'll also see it as panties rather than pants, as in 'put on your big girl panties and (do whatever)'.

In this case, the author soon follows with the suggestion that Romney's campaign defend his record.

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I was in understanding that ‘put on pants’ phrase means "let somebody (here Obama’s Campaign managers ) put on pants 'neatly.'" But I realized that it means they (Obama's Campaign managers themselves) need to ‘put their big boy (girl) pants (panties),' and also it always requires the words, ‘big boy (girl) before 'pants (panties).' It’s a new learning only available through this site. That said, does ‘big boy (girl)’ mean a strong and respectable grown-up? –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 17 '12 at 5:06
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@Combread Ninja. I heard the word, ‘man up’ as a synonym for ‘step up’ or ‘take responsibility’ for the first time. I can’t find this word (as a verb) in dictionaries at hand. It’s an interesting expression. Is it a popular English (or American) idiom? –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 17 '12 at 10:31
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The phrases "big boy" and "big girl" are supposed to be reminiscent of child-rearing. When toddlers are potty-trained, they wear "big kids underwear," meaning they are no longer in diapers; when a girl reaches adolescence, she no longer wears "little girl underwear," meaning no more Dora the Explorer or The Little Mermaid panties. When these expressions are used adult-to-adult, it's meant to be a form of mocking: because you're acting childish, I'm going to use childish language. As for "man up," that expression is indeed quite popular & well-known in the US; it means, "Be a man about this!" –  J.R. Jul 17 '12 at 10:50
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Cowboy up! is a variant that came out of rodeo culture; since the bullriding championships started being broadcast on ESPN I've heard this expression more and more often. "Cowboy up, little cowboy!" is a playful, parental-style version of the same. –  MT_Head Jul 17 '12 at 16:47
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It was common practice in the beginning of the twentieth century (and perhaps even earier) to dress young boys mostly in short, or knee pants. When a child was considered more mature, he got his "first pair of long pants," hence, big boy pants.

See, e.g.:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Pants

Or so my 91 year old father tells me.

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Is it a well-received English phrase as used publicly by DNC Chair, and specifically quoted in Washington Post.

It seems to be, in American English. It's not used in the UK.

I had not heard of this until seeing this discussion so, I did not know the meaning until seeing the answers of other people.

This question should be tagged as American English.

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