Why I hate the word 'panties'
By Vanessa Murray
There, I’ve said it. Just. Awful. I recently shared my hatred of the word on my social networks, and it turns out the majority of the women I know dislike the term, too. In combination with other words – moist, ripped or soiled all come to mind – we’re likely to throw up in our mouths.It fits into a rising phenomenon in the world of psycholinguistics: word aversion. A concept that has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so, the term has been defined by University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong…but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant.”
Word aversion is marked by strong reactions triggered by the sound, sight, and sometimes even the thought of certain words.
“Not to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself,” Liberman adds. “The feelings involved seem to be something like disgust.”
Yep, that pretty much nails it. American humour site Cracked included it in a list of its top five words that needed to be banned; the others were dollop, phlegm, ointment and rural. Plethora, scab and discharge also make my own personal hit list. Just, don’t.
I posted about my distaste for the term on Facebook, and discovered I’m not alone. In fact, it kicked off one of the most passionate and entertaining threads I’ve taken part in.
'Might I share my hatred of the word panties. Who’s with me? Who’s against me? WHY IS THIS WORD?’ I shared one procrastination-filled afternoon.
The response was instantaneous, vehement and hilarious.
‘Yup, hate it. Creepy and unsexy.’
‘I hate it too. It makes me think of the sexualisation of little girls.’
‘Eurgh. That word makes me feel dirty.’
Most of the respondents were women, or sympathetic men. Or smartarses.
‘Juvenile. Unreasonable. Down with panties,’ posted one.
‘If you don’t like your panties, take them off and send them to me,’ posted another.
Actually that was my partner, who has taken to gleefully uttering ‘panties!’ at random and mostly inappropriate moments, like a person with a particularly pervy form of Tourette’s.
Then there were a few brave panties proponents who detracted.
‘I love the word panties. I wear panties. I like panties. It's sexy, y'all.’
‘I like it. It has softer, more sensual connotations than undies or knickers. All about the context!’
But on the whole, we ladies, we hate the term "panties". The term makes our skin crawl. Why, exactly? The word has never been directed at me in a violent or sexually distasteful way. In fact, it’s hardly ever been thrown at me at all. The men in my life seem to know well enough that the majority of ladies can’t stand it, and if they use it they’re more likely to turn us off than on.
Prior to the French Revolution (1789–1799), women didn’t even wear knickers; they simply wore long, heavy skirts with petticoats underneath. A need for warmth, not modesty (or personal hygiene, apparently), drove women to start wearing men’s pantaloons under their dresses, and by the 1820s ladies were layering up in pantalettes or drawers – two separate leggings tied at the waist. Yes, that’s right. Many of our great-great-great grandmothers rocked crotchless pantalettes.
Pantalettes image via:katetattersall.com
In rebellion against all things French and saucy, the prudish Victorian era joined pantalettes back together, ran them down to the knee and renamed them knickers, after men’s knickerbockers.
The barely there styles we are familiar with today (all nine of them, if you’re game enough to Google it), emerged in the 1960s, along with less conservative women’s fashion (hello, mini skirt) and changing societal views of the female body.
But the etymology of the word ‘panties’ reveals it’s always contained an element of slight. When it entered the lexicon in the mid nineteenth century, it was as a derogatory diminutive of the term for men’s trousers: pantaloons. See what they did there? Took an insulting term for men’s trousers, and applied it to women and children, particularly girls, in an everyday kind of way.
In the ensuing century, panties have become more sexy, less nursery. But an uncomfortable, infantilising link between the two remains. In my world, prepubescent schoolgirls wear panties, and unshaved men in raincoats hang around...well.
This is the crux of it. I dislike the infantilisation of words – shorten any word and you’ll make me cringe. But shorten a word with an adult, sexual significance – think titties, boobies, botty, woo-woo – and I’m one hundred per cent more likely more likely to hit you than get hot with you. Its proximity to the word ‘panting’ doesn’t do it any favours.
In popular culture, panties are often the object (and subject) of an immature, fetishistic approach to women and women’s things. In the 1970s, comedians like Bennie Hill turned the gaping titillation of the ‘accidental pervert’ and ‘peeping Tom’ characters into tropes – predictable clichés who crack a semi at the sight of a woman’s knickers.
There’s a sub-genre of porn genre dedicated to wet panties, and in Japan fans of burusera (literally, bloomers) collect schoolgirls’ panties, urine, tampons, sanitary napkins, socks, uniforms, and so on. Schoolgirls reportedly milked the situation for all it was worth, selling their smalls to willing buyers – until 2004, when laws banning the purchase of used underwear from kagaseya (sniffers) were introduced.
Because men don’t wear panties, do they? Or, do they? New Boots and Panties was the name of English punk and new wave singer Ian Dury’s 1977 album. Apparently these were the only two items Dury, a committed second hand shopper, insisted on buying new.
Eternal sitcom bachelor, Seinfeld, captured the panties zeitgeist in season 8, episode 4 (1992) when in an intimate moment his date, Sandra, starts talking about her panties. He riffs back, ‘you mean that the panties that your mother laid out for you?’
Awkward. Even George, on hearing the story (as the viewer does) from an awkward Jerry, thinks it’s weird. Sandra did what I’d have done in a flash: froze, freaked out then left.
What pass for panties – flimsy concoctions of satin and silk and ribbon and lace, designed to both wrap and reveal my lady bits – I like; for special occasions, when I want to present myself and be treated as a delicious lady specimen. For everyday wear, they’re just plain uncomfortable. Akin to wrapping my genitals in a fine mesh of ill-fitting steel wool, then trying to jump hurdles.
So what are the alternatives? Knickers (my fave), undies (close second) or drawers? Pants! Lingerie, or my grandmother’s favourite – unmentionables?
(Pic: via Shutterstock)