Friday, 13 November 2009

The Sartorial Singular

I have just received an email inviting me to buy Christmas presents at Sweaty Betty, which for the uninitiated is a shop selling fashionable sports and fitness clothes for women - in some cases so beautifully designed that customers are inspired to take up certain sports simply for the opportunity to wear the clothes.

One item in particular caught my eye: the "unwind pant". Pants, of course, is an American word for what the British call trousers. Although it is still considered an Americanism, it is gaining ground in Britain for terms referring to sportswear. "Sweatpants" is far more common than the unpleasant-sounding "sweat trousers". "Jogging pants" and "tracksuit pants", meanwhile, are used about half as frequently as "jogging trousers" and "tracksuit trousers" - although "bottoms", as in "jogging bottoms" and "tracksuit bottoms", remains the most popular word by a wide margin.

But it was not the word "pant" in itself, nor the use of the verb "unwind" as an adjective which struck me - it was the use of the singular. I have never referred to a "pant" or a "trouser", any more than I would use "a glass" to mean a pair of spectacles - it is always "pants" or "a pair of pants". "Pants" is what is known as a plurale tantum - a word that only ever appears in the plural form - and "pant" is a bizarre and grammatically incorrect back-formation.

However, the use of the fashion singular - identified here by the wonderful Hadley Freeman, although even she seems uncertain about the word "pant" - is becoming more and more common, mostly in marketing and advertising copy (as in the Gap advert above) but also in the words of designers themselves. We can probably expect to hear more about "the pant", "the trouser" and "the legging", although I hope that we will be spared "the bottom", at least in reference to sportswear.

A week or so ago I surprised myself by using the word "jean" in the singular - something like "that's a nice jean", or "I like a jean with a high waist". Thus fashion-speak insinuates itself into everyday life.

* Curiously, the only recent reference I have found to "sweat trousers" appears in a Financial Times fashion review).

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