Panties? Skivvies? Bloomers? Words for Underwear

Good gravy, I’ve gotten swept up into National Undies Week, as declared by Natalie Hartford and Jenny Hansen. However, since this is Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, let’s look at the words we use for underwear and where we got them.

Bikinis. Bikini is a toponym (word coined for geography). In 1946, Jacques Heim designed “the world’s smallest swimsuit” and called it the Atom. Frenchman Louis Réard designed a two-piece swimsuit which scandalously exposed the navel and claimed that it split the Atom–thus calling it the “bikini” since Americans were conducting atomic tests at the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. Underwear in the same shape are also called bikinis.

Bloomers. Elizabeth Miller was a women’s suffragist who became “thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt…” and in 1851 invented loose trousers to be worn by women. Her design was promoted and popularized in The Lily, the first newspaper for women which was edited by Amelia Bloomer. Eventually, Ms. Bloomer’s name became associated with the design itself.

Boxers. Thank the pugilists for this one. Everlast’s founder, Jacob Golomb, created a lightweight version of fighting shorts in 1925, which were loose around the legs and had an elastic waist instead of a leather belt. As underwear, boxers didn’t take off until World War II (1941-45 in the U.S.).

Briefs. In 1934 Arthur Kneibler of the Wisconsin hosiery company Coopers, Inc. received a postcard from a friend who had visited the French Riviera, noted a bikini-style bathing suit, and asked if it could be converted into underwear. Kneibler went to work and introduced snug, legless undies with an overlapping Y-front fly, which were called “Jockey shorts” (see jockstrap below). These were obviously shorter–or briefer–then the underwear that had existed before. The first reference to “jockey briefs” appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1966. Briefs, or jockeys, are also called Y-fronts.

Drawers. This term has been around since the 16th century and derives from the verb “draw” in the sense of “pull.” It referred to clothing that you pulled up, such as stockings, underpants, and pants.

Jockstrap. It couldn’t have felt too pleasant to ride a bicycle on cobblestone streets in the 1800s. Thus, the “jockstrap” was invented in 1874 to provide support for cyclists or “bicycle jockeys.”

Knickers. Knickers is a shortening of the word “knickerbockers”–a term invented for the Dutch trousers illustrated in A History of New York (1809) by Washington Irving. Irving wrote the book under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. Eventually, the term was shortened and used to describe women’s underwear–which in the 19th century did resemble the knee-length Dutch pants.

Long Johns. We’re not sure where this term came from. However, the use of the term “long johns” became popular during World War II with thermal underwear being issued to United States Army GIs. The most popular explanation for the inclusion of “john” is that a boxer, John L. Sullivan, frequently wore long johns to fight.

Panties. Panties are the shortened version of pants or pantalettes. (Pants is short for pantaloons, based on a 1580s Italian comedy in which Pantaloun was a character who wore tight trousers). The word “panties” was first used in 1908.

Skivvies. I defer entirely to the Word Detective on this one: “Little is known but much has been conjectured. We do know that ‘skivvy’ in this sense was originally a nautical term, and ‘skivvy’ was apparently at one time also used as an exclamation of excitement or surprise among sailors. … Probably the only plausible theory yet proposed about ‘skivvy” ties it to the Japanese word ‘sukebei,’ … supposedly frequently used as a greeting (the equivalent of ‘Lonely, sailor?’) by Japanese and Korean prostitutes to English-speaking sailors after World War II. … But this is all conjecture, and no real evidence (e.g., published accounts of sailors explaining ‘skivvy’ in terms of prostitutes) has yet surfaced.” I think I’ll just avoid that term altogether now.

Thongs. When I was growing up, a thong was a flip-flop. Really. Just ask your mom. However, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich is credited with inventing the modern thong in 1974. It first began showing up on beaches in Brazil (leave it to those Carnival people) and became popular in other places in the 1990s. The word “thong” originally meant a cord or strip of leather–such as was used in flip-flop sandals and the backside of these undies. Going back further, “thong” derives from the root “twengh” which means “to press in on, to restrain.” Sounds about right to me.

One last word on undies: Have you ever wondered why we call them a “pair” of undies? That’s because underwear were originally two separate pants pulled onto each leg and then tied together at the waist. I for one am glad that design has changed.

So what other words for underwear do you know or use? Any others you want me to research?

Sources: MacMillion Dictionary; Cambridge Dictionaries Online; Merriam-Webster; Winning the Vote; National Park Service; A Brief History of Underwear; The History of Thongs; Pants People-Nuts about Underwear; Mental Floss; Jockey; Arnold Zwicky’s Blog; World Wide Words; Wise Geek; Word Detective