Word Origins: Saint Pantaleon and Pants

About the history and biography of Saint Pantaleon the man whose name is the origin for the word pants.

PANTS ('pan(t)s) n. pl. [Short for pantaloons] 1. trousers 2. chiefly Brit.: men's short underpants.

Poor St. Pantaleon, who should be hailed for his virtue and courage, is usually remembered only by men's "pants," ladies' "panties," and a word meaning sissy. St.--or San--Pantaleon, tradition tells us, came from Nicomedia in Asia Minor--his name meaning, depending on the original spelling, either "all lion" or "all compassionate." He was both of these. A Christian doctor and personal physician to Emperor Galerius Maximianus, San Pantaleon treated the poor without charge. The fame of the "Holy Moneyless One" probably inspired other jealous physicians to report him to Maximianus' co-ruler, the Emperor Diocletian, who was then busily occupied persecuting Christians.

Condemned to death in 305 A.D., San Pantaleon miraculously survived 6 attempts to kill him--his hapless executioners trying liquid lead, burning, drowning, wild beasts, the wheel, and the sword before finally beheading him successfully. The Greek saint's story was a favorite one in Venice, where he became both the patron saint of doctors and a martyr especially revered by the Venetians, his name all the more popular because so many boys were baptized in his honor. Probably for this reason, and because it was comical to call a foolish character all lion, the saint's name attached itself to the buffoon in the 15th-century Italian commedia dell'arte. The "amorous" Pantaleon was always played by an emaciated bespectacled old man wearing slippers, one-piece, skintight breeches, and stockings that bloused out above the knees. Strolling bands of players performed variations of the comedy featuring the "seedy, needy" dotard throughout Europe and both his name and the name of the trousers he wore became "pantaloons" in England by the late 1600s. In time "pantaloons" was used as a designation for trousers in general, the word shortened to "pants" when a new style, tight-fitting from the thighs to the ankle, was introduced to America in the early 18th century. "Pants" persisted in America, ever after applied to all changes in styles, and always preferred by most Americans to the "trousers" purists have insisted upon. The word "pants" is even used for women's undergarments, though its more feminine form "panties" generally describes these.

What with the miniskirts and tights popular today, women are wearing a costume very similar in silhouette to that of the stage pantaloon of the 15th century. As for "pantywaist," a sissy or effeminate boy, it goes back to the 1890s, deriving from the name of a sleeveless underwaist that a little girl's "panties" were attached to, but which boys were sometimes made to wear. Which made the brave St. Pantaleon's humiliation as complete as theirs.

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