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I wonder what differences are between usage of slacks, pants, and trousers? Their meanings seem the same by looking up Google’s Internet dictionary and Wikipedia.

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Added AmE tag because to me "pants" definitely does not mean the same as "trousers"! –  Andrew Leach Aug 27 '12 at 15:20
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More important (to me) than the reference of each of these word is the users. "Slacks" and (to a slightly lesser extent) "trousers" are words used by older people, women, and people in the clothing industry. In decades of life as a native English speaker, living in multiple countries that speak English, I don't think I've ever heard anyone outside of those three categories use those two words. My mom talks about "slacks" and "trousers". I just call everything "pants" and I'm done with it. –  iconoclast Aug 27 '12 at 17:27
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@Brandon: that's exactly my view of things (in AmE). It's all pants all the way. –  Mitch Aug 27 '12 at 17:46
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In my experience in American English, "trousers" is seldom used unless it is an affectation of some kind. "Slacks" generally means something slightly more formal than denim and "Pants" usually means something like denim jeans but can also be used as a synonym for both "Slacks" and "Trousers". "Dress Pants" or "Suit Pants" might be used for men's or women's business bifurcated garments. –  TecBrat Aug 28 '12 at 1:29
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@Tim In British English, "pants" is short for "underpants." It is a source of much mirth. –  Kaz Dragon Aug 28 '12 at 6:58
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12 Answers 12

An excert from here:

Slacks implies pants of certain materials which are not part of a suit (jeans are not slacks, and you would not refer to the pair of trousers that came with a suit as "slacks".) It is also more common to use "slacks" to refer to pants worn by women, while men would wear "trousers". Meanwhile, "pants" could refer to slacks, or trousers, or jeans, or just about any form of two-legged outer garment for the lower body.

Note that in AE, "pants" by itself is never understood to mean underwear of any kind, and must be altered in some form (either as "underpants" or as "panties") to have that meaning.

Bill: What's this I hear that the boss walked into your office while you were changing your clothes and caught you in your underwear? Tom: No, but she nearly caught me in my underwear; luckily, I had just put my pants on.

This is an AE perspective but, I would say that trousers and pants are synonyms. With both being any outer garment that covers both legs separately and goes from waist to ankles. Technically slacks is also a synonym, but the informal definition I most frequently hear is that slacks = dress pants. I.E. Pants that you might wear if you were trying to look nice.

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The excerpt you quote contradicts your definition of "slacks = dress pants", in the sense that a suit is about as dressy as anybody gets nowadays, yet nobody would call the leg coverings that came with said suit "slacks". –  Marthaª Aug 27 '12 at 16:25
    
Isn't it neat how usage varies? Personally, I would call suit pants slacks if worn without the jacket... but I didn't want to modify the quote. –  Daniel Cook Aug 27 '12 at 16:57
    
I've never heard suit pants called slacks. What part of the US do you live in? –  iconoclast Aug 27 '12 at 17:34
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@Brandon I generally wouldn't say slacks as the term is more of an occasional term used by my elders... But if I did I would only mean suit pants in the sense of the kind of pants that may be paired with a suit jacket. For your information, I was raised in a suburb of Chicago. –  Daniel Cook Aug 27 '12 at 17:55
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As I understand "suit", the jacket and pants always come together. If you pair the jacket with pants of a non-identical material, then it's not a suit (again, as I've always heard the term used, and had it explained to me when I've asked for fashion advice). –  iconoclast Aug 27 '12 at 18:01
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I know the question is tagged AmE - but that wasn't in the original, and hasn't (yet) been confirmed by OP, so I don't see anything wrong with answering from a BrE perspective.

In the UK, pants almost always means underpants. And as OED says, slacks are loosely-cut trousers for informal wear, esp. those worn by women.

I think for many Americans, pants and trousers are effectively synonyms. But so far as I'm aware, "esp. those worn by women" tends to apply to slacks on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Google does something curious if you search for "men's slacks". Check it out. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 17:33
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In the UK, pants just means what Americans call underpants. I'm surprised by your mention of "slacks". I haven't heard that word used in the UK, at all. It seems to be an American English word. –  Tristan Aug 27 '12 at 17:56
    
@tchrist: what curious thing did you see? link to yours? I saw two peaks in AmE and no hits at all in BrE. –  Mitch Aug 27 '12 at 18:16
    
@Mitch It counts pants as hits for slacks. I found that curious. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 18:21
    
@tchrist: oh... that is interesting. –  Mitch Aug 27 '12 at 18:27
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A good dictionary is more useful for comparing regional usage and subtleties of difference than Google or Wikipedia. From Macmillan Dictionary:¹

trousers

a piece of clothing covering the body from the waist to the feet, divided into separate parts for each leg and worn by both men and women

pants

(American edition) a piece of clothing that covers your body from your waist to your ankles and has a separate part for each leg
(British edition) a piece of underwear that covers the part of the body from the waist to the top of the legs

slacks

(British edition). trousers, especially ones that are worn for informal occasions
(American edition) pants, especially ones that are worn for informal occasions

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That AE definition for slacks is outrageous. Do a google image search for slacks. Do those look informal? –  Daniel Cook Aug 27 '12 at 15:40
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@DanielCook: Formality is relative. You might wear jeans to work, in which case those images would look formal. But in a suit-and-tie office, slacks would be decidedly informal. –  Robusto Aug 27 '12 at 15:43
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I think even the idea that a suit is formal is a recent notion. AFAIK "formal wear" once meant a tuxedo. If you look at depression-era pictures you can often find impoverished men in a three-piece suit, dingy and worn out though it may be. –  iconoclast Aug 27 '12 at 17:57
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@DanielCook Wear what you like. Technically you are not wearing a suit when you do that, though, as a suit is a jacket and trousers cut from the same cloth. When your jacket and slacks don't match, they may be stylish, but you're not wearing a suit. –  MετάEd Aug 27 '12 at 18:03
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@iconoclast when first introduced, even the tuxedo was considered informal, as evening clothing that gentlemen would wear only in the company of other gentlemen. If ladies were present, only a full dress suit ("white tie") would be formal enough. Nowadays white tie is a rarity even among the ruling classes, and black tie (a tuxedo) is as formal as you're likely to see. –  nohat Aug 28 '12 at 0:12
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An AE perspective:

pants - The broadest term used for any full length two legged covering, male or female; covers both hard work clothes (jeans), casual (chinos, ducks, khakis, etc.) and dress outfits (suits, office wear, evening wear, even tuxedos). This is probably the most common term in general use. (See ngram below which is probably book references only)

slacks - The next fairly broad term, covering all but work clothes or jeans. Women's dressier pants are often called slacks. Probably least used overall and more for women's clothing.

trousers - Usually only used for dressier clothes, such as suit pants or finer pants often worn with a sports jacket, blazer or a dressier shirt. Usually reserved for men's clothing, with the possible exception of women's pants suits.

ngram pants

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Men's slacks are where you find men's dress pants in a department store. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 17:36
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Men's Furnishings is where you find "pants" in Nordstrom, a popular American department store. In Men's Clothing, one finds "dress trousers". So not all stores are the same. –  mikeY Aug 27 '12 at 19:33
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In Macy's, one of the largest department stores in the US, one subcategory in Men's is pants. There is also a Suit Separates subcategory where, a quick review, finds the bottoms referred to as pants across several brands. Brooks Brothers, a more classic men's store, lists casual pants and dress trousers as categories. –  bib Aug 27 '12 at 19:45
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The real question that keeps popping up is the definition of "slacks". It is a word that was used in the US clothing trade to describe what might be called "dress pants" in the US: a type of garment that looks good with a blazer. This garment could be khakis, gabardine, some kind of cloth that holds a crease. "Dockers" would be an example of such a garment. I wouldn't imagine flannel trousers being called slacks, as they do not hold a crease. But that's just a personal impression.

Think of a man's suit, the type of cloth; now imagine just the trousers, and that there is no matching jacket: those would be slacks.

Delving further into the question of pants/slacks/trousers/jeans, all of these are pants of some kind, at least in US vernacular. Trousers is generally a term for pants that have a matching jacket, though the term "pants" is used as well. Slacks, as I said above, are "dressy" without being formal, and do not have a matching jacket. Jeans, on the other hand, are jeans. Denim riveted if truly authentic, exterior back pockets ... perhaps also with a small watch fob in the front right pocket; no crease down the front. Although garments can be cut like jeans, sewn like jeans and styled like jeans, if they are not made of cotton denim, they are not truly jeans.

One final note on "slacks" ... since there were many German Jewish immigrants in the garment trade a hundred years ago, I wonder whether the term does not come from Yiddish or German, just as "lox" (smoked salmon) comes from "Lachs" (German for salmon). That's one for a German linguist to pursue.

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The usage of the words "slacks" and "pants" to mean the same thing as the word trousers, seems to be from American English. I have heard these used by Americans. I have not heard those words used by British people. They normally use the word trousers and sometimes, some slang/informal words for them, like "strides".

This page lists the word "slacks" as another word for pants (in the trousers meaning): http://www.h2g2.com/approved_entry/A129647

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Well in Britain,

1) Slacks - (Clothing & Fashion) informal trousers worn by both sexes (The Free Dictionary)

2) Pants - inadequate, displeasing, or of poor quality. Possible origin: underwear, called "pants" in Britain. (Online Slang Dictionary)

3) Trousers - (Clothing & Fashion) a garment shaped to cover the body from the waist to the ankles or knees with separate tube-shaped sections for both legs. (The Free Dictionary)

I understand you want to know what the differences are in US-English, but that is the definition in UK-English.


In South Africa, it is the same as USA - English. Where we would call trousers as formal long pants. i.e.

Pants = shorts / baggies, etc.

Trousers = formal long pants; for weddings, etc.

I have never heard of slacks, but guessing they would be loose clothing.

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I am from the North West of England and I am very American on this subject, pants are not underware. Trousers are smart and formal, you would not call the lower half of your addias track suit "jogging trousers"

If its raining I put on waterproof pants. (another word overpants) If i am going out on a Friday night to a club i will ware trousers and a smart shirt.

I do not use the term slacks.

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I now live in the South of England; it seems the southern English are pretty much on their own on this subject. The rest of the world seems to say it in the American sense. I think it maybe a historic class issue. Northerner’s on the whole worked in industry and wore pants and underpants for work and trousers on a Sunday at church while Southeners wore suits in offices, with pants and trousers and the same on Sunday at church. –  pete May 24 '13 at 15:56
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Seems to depend on where you are from in the U.S., as well. In the Midwest, or at least the part where I am from, slacks refers to casual dress pants — what you'd wear to work, out for the night, to a dressy occasion where you don't want to look stiff, but do want to look good. Blue jeans don't fit this word. Jeans are jeans. Pants is a universal term. You subdivide, by using slacks etc., in order to define exactly what style you mean.

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Trou´sers n. pl. 1. A garment worn by men and boys, extending from the waist to the knee or to the ankle, and covering each leg separately.

Trousers or "pants" can either be synonymous with pants or have a more formal connotation. Therefore, all trousers are pants, but not vice-versa: jeans are pants but not trousers, while slacks (formal pants) are both. This definition is consistent with other languages such as the Spanish pantalones, which is contrasted with pantalones cortos (shorts, or literally "short pants").

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This definition seems to exist only in American English. –  Tristan Nov 13 '13 at 11:39
    
the UK definition of Trousers is: An outer garment covering the body from the waist to the ankles, with a separate part for each leg. So it's similar to the US definition. –  Kevdog777 Feb 28 at 13:12
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I have always thought of trousers as part of a suit or uniform. Slacks look the same as suit trousers because they are made of more formal material, but are purchased separately. They would be worn alone or with a sportcoat. Pants are everything else, corderoys, chinos, jeans, and other less formal styles.

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In UK English, Slacks are trousers worn by women. This is by contrast with the other form of similar leg covering garment worn by women: tights. Trousers usually implies that the wearer is male.

In UK English, pants is a less formal word for trousers. It doesn't usually mean underpants, although if you wet your pants, I suppose this might mean underpants.

In recent years, pants has been used jocosely to mean useless/rotten/rubbish.

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Just love down-voters who don't comment. –  Dominic Cronin Sep 25 '12 at 22:00
    
Sorry, I have downvoted because I think your answer is completely misleading. In the UK 'slacks is an old-fashioned word for trousers worn by both sexes (see @Kevdog answer). No modern woman would refer to her trousers as slacks. Likewise, you never hear 'pants' used for 'trousers' in the UK, except perhaps for American ideas such as 'jog pants'. –  Mynamite May 27 '13 at 11:38
    
If a modern woman said Slacks, she would mean her trousers. Whether she /would/ say that is a different issue. While I have heard people refer to women's trousers as slacks (my mother used to, in the 1960's/1970's - I have never heard a Brit refer to mens trousers as slacks. Perhaps this is an American usage. Pants is used less for trousers since it acquired humourous connotations. –  Dominic Cronin May 28 '13 at 10:17
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