Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Saint Pants

I think, by default, that my long-schemed week of saints is upon us. Now gaze, dear reader, upon my all-compassionate underwear.

Once upon a time there was a chap who probably didn't exist and who probably wasn't called Pantaleon. Legend has it that he was personal physician to Emperor Maximinianus. When the emperor discovered his doctor was a Christian he got terribly upset and decreed that the doctor should die.

The execution went badly. They tried to burn him alive, but the fire went out. They threw him into molten lead but it turned out to be cold. They lashed a stone to him and chucked him into the sea, but the stone floated. They threw him to wild beasts, which were tamed. They tried to hang him and the rope broke. They tried to chop his head off but the sword bent and he forgave the executioner.

This last kindness was what earned the doctor the name Pantaleon, which means All-Compassionate.

Anyway, in the end they got Pantaleon's head off and he died. By the tenth century he had become the patron saint of Venice. Pantalon therefore became a popular Venetian name and the Venetians themselves were often called the Pantaloni.

Then in the sixteenth century came the Commedia Dell'Arte: short comic plays performed by travelling troupes and always involving the same stock characters like Harlequin and Scaramouch.

Pantalone was the stereotypical Venetian. He was a merchant and a miser and a lustful old man, and he wore one-piece breeches, like Venetians did. These long breeches therefore became known as pantaloons. Pantaloons were shortened to pants and the English (though not the Americans) called their underwear underpants. Underpants were again shortened to pants, which is what I am now wearing.

Pants are all-compassionate. Pants are saints. So think, dear reader, upon my martyred underwear.

I've always liked the lines from Kubla Khan:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Because I imagine the earth to be wearing thick pants. This etymology also means that Liar, liar, pants on fire is wrong, because they couldn't burn Pantaleon.

History does not record and this mosaic does not reveal whether St Pantaleone wore pants.

P.S. There's also a word pantaloonery, which means either fooling around like Pantalone, or the material used for making pants.


  1. Don't Americans have underpants as well as pants? Under pants are what go under your pants.

    1. But In america, what the British would call trousers are called pants, and underneath the pants are underpants. In Britain we call Trousers Trousers, and then underpants underpants or pants depending on what we feel like saying.

  2. I've always been too polite to ask. If they are underpants then I assume they can't be shortened for fear of confusion with the [over]pants.

  3. Underpants do go under your pants in America, but I think more frequently we wear them under our pants as underwear. As the Romans used to say, "Semper ubi sub ubi."

  4. It has been well observed that one all-American super-hero did not wear his underpants in the approved manner.

  5. I can attest that Americans definitely do refer to underpants as 'underpants'.

    I think we have a different concept of the name, though, since we still refer to our one-piece breeches (or, where I'm from, 'britches') as 'pants'. So, in the UK, your underpants are the pants you wear under your clothes, while in the US, your underpants are the clothes you wear under your pants.