Where does the expression seat-of-the-pants come from? These dictionaries (1, 2, 3) don't give much insight.

What is the etymology of seat-of-the-pants?

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I believe the full phrase started as flying by the seat of your pants and it comes from the aviation community.
When flying an aircraft a pilot can rely on instruments, e.g., a turn coordinator, to tell him whether he is flying his airplane in coordinated flight or, he can rely on the way it feels. The pilot can feel whether the force keeping him in his seat is directly straight down into his seat as it is when you are sitting in a chair on the ground or whether it is going through the chair at an angle- picture yourself sitting on a chair on the side of a hill. You really can feel the difference in the seat of your pants. As StonyB points out, this article from Popular Mechanics mentions that a pilot can also feel when the aircraft is climbing or diving by sensing how "heavy" or "light" he feels in his seat.

One should also note that the part of the pants or trousers that covers the buttocks is known as the seat. (4b)

  • 1
    +1 The earliest uses I have found of this are from Popular Science, issues of May and December 1929. The latter has a particularly good description you may want to incorporate. – StoneyB May 26 '13 at 17:26
  • But one should note that pilot disorientation in the clouds is a very real hazard and that a pilot who tries to fly by the seat of his pants under these conditions will likely end his flying career without logging another landing. "Trust your instruments" is the mantra of all instrument rated pilots. – Jim May 26 '13 at 17:35
  • 3
    Yes; the author of the linked passage, even though he's writing at a time when instruments were cruder and planes were smaller and correspondingly more informatively sensible, acknowledges that “When my senses tell me one thing and the little dials on the instrument board tell me another, usually the dials are right. … Next to the instruments, probably the pilot’s safest guide to the position of his ship is the seat of his pants.” – StoneyB May 26 '13 at 17:53
  • @StoneyB: Nice find! The OED's earliest is 1938, would you like to send them your antedatings? (It's definition P3.) – Hugo May 30 '13 at 12:30

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.