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My wife, a native Spanish speaker, today asked me about why a youtuber would call themselves 'craftypants'.

I explained that -pants was added to something as synecdoche, so for example an intelligent person might be called a 'smarty-pants', a poor-humored person a 'grumpy-pants', etc.

However, I then realized that while this is common in the US, in the UK 'pants' by itself usually means what this Yank would call 'underwear', while what I call 'pants' would appear over there as 'trousers'.

How do such expressions as 'fancy-pants' sound to speakers in the UK? Are they understandable in meaning but recognizable as being North American? Does putting a -pants ending on a word remove the association with intimate clothing? Does it just sound bizarre? Do parallel expressions like grumpy-trousers exist? Are some combinations acceptable in polite speech, but others (e.g., pissy pants) not?

Edit: There is much discussion in comments, and some in answers, about whether -pants is synecdoche. That's fair, and I am happy to have the point challenged. However, that's not my question. Even if I am wrong, my question is how "-pants" sounds to UK speakers, and whether it is clear or not that it is different from "pants" (underwear).

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    @Tuffy - But the question is about pants, not shorts! We do use the word for an outer garment in some contexts - ski pants, harem pants, for example - so it doesn't sound so odd to a British person. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 8:04
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    I'm not sure this snowclone can be classed as involving synecdoche. Pants (however defined) are not an intrinsic part of a person, female or male. Metonymy is broader. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 11:36
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    "Fancy pants," in particular, seems like it could have originated in the UK - esp. considering their definition of "pants". Like: That person is so fancy - even their underwear is fancy.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 11:48
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    @EdwinAshworth It may not even be metonymy, as there is no requirement that something referred to as X-pants wear, or even be able to wear, pants. You can go to a fancy-pants restaurant or have a sassy-pants cat. I'd say it's not really metonymy or synecdoche when the reference word has no meaningful relationship to the referent. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:26
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    Not all UK speakers use 'pants' to mean the undergarments. My wife from Lancashire and a large number of people in the north of England use the word to mean 'trousers'. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 19:44

5 Answers 5

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How do such expressions as 'fancy-pants' sound to speakers in the UK?

Native UK resident here. To answer the specific question asked as simply as possible - it sounds entirely natural. While 'pants' here refers to underwear rather than trousers, the phrase still makes sense.

Smarty-pants as an expression in the UK is still very ubiquitous and alternates like 'grumpy-pants', 'mardy-pants' (if you're in Yorkshire anyway) are generally well understood and while not part of every day speech in all cultures and walks of life, are still very well understood.

Smarty-trousers is categorically not a thing!

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    Although "clever clogs" is, for some reason.
    – tgdavies
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 0:56
  • And also "smart cookie", for some equally strange reason. FWIW, "clever clogs" and "smart cookie" are a bit different since "smarty pants" often has a bit of a pejorative color... conveying a bit of a sense or arrogance -- which the others don't, Certainly you can use "smarty pants" without that color, but it is certainly not uncommon. FWIW, when you want to be more explicit about the arrogance, you'd say they were "too clever by half" or "too big for their own boots". Which just shows what a rich language English is.
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 19:27
  • "fancy-pants" much less than the others IME (probably less than "mardy-pants" and I'm down south)
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 21:09
  • IME in the US, the primary meaning of “smarty pants” is the pejorative meaning @FraserOrr mentions and I’ve never heard it used to mean “smart”.
    – Charles
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 15:42
  • I'm glad "smart cookie" is good in the UK. "Smart biscuit" just doesn't seem right.
    – davidbak
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 20:13
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I believe this family of words derives from a parallel with the original "smarty pants" much as we have a family of words derived from marathon (hackathon, jokeathon etc.) or Watergate (memogate, emailgate, partygate etc.) -athon meaning something done over a long period of time, and -gate referring to a political scandal of some sort.

The origins of smarty pants are described on World Wide Words which, in summary, doesn't have clear origins, as with much slang, but has its origins is in the US in the 1930s. However, this doesn't give a specific citation. A user on Using English gives a specific citation in 1941 "1941 by B. Schulenberg in What makes Sammy Run? where he uses the phrase "one of those Vassar smartypants." And a search in Google Books gives some from 2018 "It freaked out some preacher kids, smarty pants from a Bible science class...".

From this meaning derive various words such as grumpy-pants, fancy pants, sleepy-pants etc., meaning a person with a strong propensity to the adjective. As with marathon or Watergate it is fairly acceptable to just coin a word of this form by sticking whatever adjective (or verb for marathon, or noun for Watergate) to make an implied meaning.

There isn't really any meaning to "pants" here, just as there isn't in the -athon of Marathon or the -gate of Watergate. it is just a strange idiomatic convention. And FWIW, I was brought up in the UK but now live in the USA. Smarty-trousers is not an expression I have ever heard, though occasionally a -boots suffix has a similar usage in Britain, "bossy boots" for example. Some references on the web do suggest that "smarty boots" is used, but I have never heard that myself.

Edit: I found some other citations. This one from 2021. "Jessup made a face at her. 'No smarty-pants. I didn't like it....". A few more here (2018, orig. published 2006), here (2018, orig. published 2006) and here (2020).

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    The term for this sort of reasonably productive patterning on an original template (eg red is the new black [Y is the new X] {see orange is the new black}, Xgate ... is snowclone. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 11:29
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    Thanks @EdwinAshworth, you comment really enhances my answer -- and I'd vaguely heard that term but didn't know what it meant.
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:42
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    @j4nd3r53n it is an interesting theory, but I don't think it'll fly. The expression's origin is clearly in the US, and pantomime does not mean that here. Here it mean theater without words rather than the traditional over the top theatre that it means in Britain.
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 15:21
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    Pantomime is normally abbreviated to panto. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 20:45
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    Google books dates need to be double checked, the same thing has happened to me. Riding Fence by AH Holt, the first of your links, (please avoid using "here" and write the source name) was published in 2006
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 6:27
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I am a Brit (in my late 20s, from the Southeast and speaking fairly typical Standard Southern British English) and I certainly wouldn't think of these phrases as a synecdoche.

The grumpiness of a grumpypants doesn't lie in the pants, or even their trousers, the grumpiness lies in the grumpypants themself.

This is likely a back-formation from the more literally metonymous "smarty-pants" or "fancy-pants" which both take off in American English in the 1930s [graph], before gradually spreading to British English in the 60s [graph]. In this case, it literally refers to someone with smart or fancy pants (trousers).

From there, -pants was backformed in the same way as -holic (from alcoholic), -copter (from helicopter), or -athon (from marathon). The only difference here is that -pants happens to also be a noun in its own right. This isn't unique though, and is also seen in -gate (from the Watergate [Hotel Scandal])

The parallel formation in -boots is used in the UK (especially with "bossy", probably for the alliteration), but again I don't think it can be called a synecdoche, or even metonymy because the bossiness is not actually a feature of the boots.

In all cases (i.e. -pants, -boots, -holic, -copter, -athon, -gate) these are best regarded as noun-forming derivational suffixes, with -pants & -boots typically being deadjectival (i.e. applied to adjectives).

Just as -gate does not imply any particular relation to physical gates, I don't associate adjectives formed in -pants to have any relation to underwear or trousers.

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    I believe the claim is that the original term "smarty-pants" comes from a syecdoche. The person is smart, but the word just refers to their pants, which is a part of the whole, hence a synecdoche. Of course, all the other -pants words are then back-formations from this.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:23
  • @Barmar for it to be a synecdoche "smartypants" would need to be part of the whole, not merely the pants
    – Tristan
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:45
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    Tthey said "-pants was added to something as a synecdoche". The suffix is the synecdoche.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:54
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How do such expressions as 'fancy-pants' sound to speakers in the UK? Are they understandable in meaning but recognizable as being North American?

I don't think any British person today would have difficulty in understanding the meaning of smarty-pants. British people are already familiar with American expressions such as candy, cookies, sidewalk, peanut butter and jelly (UK jam), and pants meaning trousers. In fact, the North American expression reminds me of a well-established taunt that I used to hear London school children hurl at each other during the 1970s.

smart-arse (smart-ass AmE)

noun [ C ] UK offensive
someone who is always trying to seem more clever than other people in a way that is annoying:
I don't want some smart-arse from the city telling me how to manage my farm.
source: Cambridge Dictionary

It's my hunch that the noun smart-arse (1962) is derived from another American loanword whose origin dates back to 1863

smart-alec

also smart alek, smart alec, "would-be clever person," by 1863 ["Weekly Butte Record," Oroville, Calif., May 16, 1863], of unknown origin. Barnhart suggests perhaps in reference to Aleck Hoag, notorious pimp, thief, and confidence man in New York City in early 1840s. But the dates don't overlap and the earliest use seems to concentrate in the U.S. West (Idaho and Nevada).
source: etymonline

An early variant of smarty-pants was smartpants, unhyphenated and without the suffix -y, it turns up in Time, volume 34 in 1939

Nobody has decided yet whether Pinky Smith is a young liberal who happens to be smart or a young smartpants who finds it convenient to appear liberal. But nobody denies that he has gone far in his 30 years and promises to go much father.

In a 1935 novel, Some We Loved by Edward Harris Heth, the jeer appears, without speech marks, hinting that American readers were already familiar with its usage.

…and you're so good to me, God Almighty you're good to me! I'm sorry, sir, they won't answer!’ Why, you smarty-pants, so you know it, do you? He slammed down the receiver and, sweating, suffocating from smoke, broke from his cage, his eyes blinking at the bright lights decorated with red-and-white crêpe-paper —Ah-ha! my college, my alma mater!–on the ceiling.

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As the "pants" in "fancypants" do not refer to actual pants, even in the originating language; it loses its connection. The usage of "pants" that doesn't refer to clothing is unusual, but relatively easy to understand when hearing it used in the appropriate context.

Once this usage of non-clothing "pants" is acknowledged by the listener, i.e. a Brit who is aware that even an American saying "fancypants" is not referring to what they call a pair of trousers; they inherently also no longer sign up to interpreting the "pants" in "fancypants" to refer to underwear in their own dialect either.

This is one of those words that are learned through encountering it in the wild more so than knowing its academic definition; and the inherent context that you tend to get when encountering things in the wild makes it very obvious that no one is referring to an article of clothing.

I think this would be a bigger hurdle if the Americans were referring to pants/trousers; because then it's not as easy to disconnect the word "pants" from its meaning.

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