The headline in last Saturday’s Guardian read: “French dictionary says pants to the past”. It was about the new edition of the Oxford-Hachette French dictionary, which includes for the first time French equivalents for many popular English language terms, such as visible panty line (translated rather sniffily as “marque disgracieuse de la culotte” or “unbecoming mark of the knickers”, this last word being the common British English term for them). However, that word pants from the headline is one that the dictionary doesn’t attempt to translate. As it happens, Americans have been queuing up to ask me about it, since it appears in television shows imported from Britain (and was used in the catchphrase for the recent BBC Television charity telethon: “Say pants to poverty!”).
It has been an all-purpose term of disapproval among young people in the UK during the middle to late nineties. It first turned up in print in 1994, in pieces that indicate it was popularised by DJs on the BBC’s radio pop channel, Radio 1, most probably by Simon Mayo, though the finger is often pointed at Zoë Ball. By a year or so later, it was very much in vogue among teenagers. In the way of such things, by the time older people picked it up and started using it, it was already a bit passé; its recent very public exposure has almost certainly put paid to its popularity among its younger users.
But there’s evidence that the word in this sense is somewhat older, and that it comes from student slang. Graham Diamond, of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells me that he came across it at university about two years earlier, and actually used it in slogans on posters advertising bands around January 1993.
Pants in British usage are not trousers, of course, but underpants, principally male. These intimate nether garments have long been a source of innocent merriment among pubescent youth, and this was just another example, in the tradition of the earlier exclamation knickers!, indicating contempt or exasperation. It appears in phrases like “it’s a pile of pants!” (Simon Mayo’s catchphrase) and “it’s pants!” or “it’s absolute pants”, meaning that it’s a total load of rubbish. Later, we began to hear it from older people as in “My tomato crop was pants last year”. In phrases like “say pants to ...” it’s an injunction to wave goodbye to something considered outmoded, unwanted or unnecessary.
Britain seems to have cornered the market in undergarment-related slang words in the nineties, having popularised chuddies (as in “kiss my chuddies”). This was a catchphrase in the comedy show on BBC television, Goodness Gracious Me!, based on the experiences of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, whose dialogue is in a curious mixed language sometimes called Hinglish. Yes, the Hindi word for underpants is indeed chuddies.