Consider... the university professor. What is his function? Simply to pass on to fresh generations of numskulls a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue. His whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities and avarices of his university trustees, i.e., a committee of soap-boilers, nail manufacturers, bank-directors and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.
-- H. L. Mencken

I know what 'fan' and 'pantaloons' mean, but this phrase baffles me and I couldn't find it anywhere.

  • 1
    Perhaps the implication is that he would be lying and they would be fanning the flames of his pants on fire. Mar 8, 2015 at 17:02
  • 1
    What @Ian said. I'd say it's a euphemistic/affected allusion to getting his ass burned Mar 8, 2015 at 17:10

1 Answer 1


The quoted language comes from Mencken's "The Professions," first published in The Smart Set (January 1922).

According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994), one meaning of fan as a slang term is "to beat or strike." That meaning goes back more than two centuries and was certainly in active use in the early 1900s:

fan v. 1.a. to beat or strike, esp. repeatedly or soundly; deliver a blow to, esp. with a club.

[Examples:] 1785 Grose Vulgar Tongue: To Fan. To beat any one. I fanned him sweetly; I beat him heartily. 1839–40 Cobb Green Hand I 61: Let the loblolly boy be in readiness with the bite of a rope, to fan him to sleep. 1905 in "O. Henry" Works 1671: Out of th' park, now, for yours, or I'll fan yez. 1913 in J. Reed Young Man 31: "Chop it!" rumbled the cop, waving his club suggestively at me, "Now git along, or I'll fan ye!" 1917 Fornaro Purgatory 43: A guard "fans"him over the back with a club. 1928 Sharpe Chicago May 65: Go along with you, or I'll fan ye with my club. [Later citations omitted.]

It is interesting—and probably not coincidental—that all four examples from the period 1905–1928 involve policemen or guards threatening to beat or actually beating someone and using fan as a euphemism. The metaphorical "pantaloon fanning" in Mencken's article attributes a similar punitive role to university trustees, but this time the relationship evoked seems to be that of an adult threatening to inflict corporal punishment on a child. Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) confirm this specific meaning of the term fan:

fan ... v.t. ... 2 To spank. 1931 : "And don't let him out of your sight, or I'll fan your tail!" Queen, Dutch Shoe, 65.

Since pantaloons is simply an old-fashioned way to say "pants" or "trousers," the image here is of the professor being swatted on the backside with a paddle or an open hand, as if he were a naughty or otherwise disobedient child.

  • 1
    Is that where we got "fanny" for "rear-end"?
    – Oldbag
    Mar 8, 2015 at 18:26
  • @Oldbag: Probably not, although the Random House Historical Dictionary isn't absolutely clear on this point. It reports that fanny meant "vulva or vagina" almost a hundred years before it meant "backside; buttocks" and speculates that the slang term may have arisen from John Cleland's 1748 novel Fanny Hill. Bu it is possible that fanny in the sense of "backside" arose independently of the "vulva" meaning, and under the influence of the verb fan, since the dictionary's first cited instance of fanny as "backside" is from 1919.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 8, 2015 at 18:55

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