Today in Slate , Katie Roiphe reviews Bossypants , Tina Fey’s long-awaited memoir about conquering the comedy world and then strangling it with her monstrous man-hands (or so I’ve gathered from the cover art). If that title sounds familiar to you, it may be because fellow comedian Michael Showalter released a similarly named book last month, Mr. Funny Pants . Or perhaps you’re thinking of one of the many other recent books , songs , movies , and websites whose titles playfully feature pants as a suffix. Where did this weird linguistic formulation come from?
The first word to get fitted with a pair of metaphorical pants was fancy . As early as the mid-19 th century, people used the collocation fancy pants to denote ostentatious clothing, often of European origin. In the 1842 novel The Career of Puffer Hopkins , for example, a group of foppish gentlemen dress the main character in “a coat of Thibet’s wool, fancy pants of French jean, boots of Poughkeepsie leather, and a Panama hat.” By 1870, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , writers had begun using the two-word phrase as an adjective meaning “fancy, fine, ornamental,” and later, “overly fancy; posh; snobbish, pretentious.” Finally, in the early 20 th century, f ancy-pants mutated into a noun, explains Graeme Diamond, principal editor of the OED’s New Words Group. A 1930 edition of Ohio’s Coshocton Tribune printed a reader’s letter with the wonderfully sarcastic salutation, “Dear Fancy Pants.”
Diamond believes that it was fancy-pants ’ transformation into a noun that led to all subsequent - pants formations. The next prominent permutation was smarty-pants , which emerged in the 1930s as a spin-off of fancy-pants . (Author John O’Hara’s bestselling 1935 novel, BUtterfield 8 , contains the line, “Not that it makes any difference to Miss Smarty Pants, but steak is exactly what I don’t want.”) Like its predecessor, smarty-pants contains an adjective that ends in -y and could theoretically describe an actual pair of slacks, in the sense of smart meaning “stylish.” Later versions deviate from the legwear theme, though most continue to begin with a word that ends with a cutesy -y. Diamond reports that OED files contain examples of more recent terms such as cranky-pants , sneaky-pants , fussy-pants , whiny-pants , and clever-pants .
The exact timeline of the formulation’s development remains something of a mystery. Usage of both smarty pants and fancy pants appears to have risen dramatically during the late 1930s, peaked during the ‘40s and ‘50s, and stayed relatively high for decades before shooting up again during the aughts. (Check out this ngram plot for a visual.) Linguist Mark Liberman hypothesizes that the terms’ initial rise was due to some article of popular culture, like the 1939 song ” Smarty Pants ” by Johnny Mercer and Walter Donaldson, which contains the lyrics, “You old smarty pants,/ Where’d you learn to dance?” The rise of television, cinema, and popular music during that era served to bring otherwise obscure terms into common parlance, and that’s probably what happened with fancy - and smarty-pants . In 1950 alone, Jack Kerouac referred to a “Mrs. Fancy-pants” in his novel The Town and the City , and Paramount released a star-studded Bob Hope/Lucille Ball vehicle called Fancy Pants . Ever since then, America has been powerless to resist the pull of the - pants .
It’s unclear, though, why -pants usage has increased so precipitously in recent years. A lot of the more creative pairings, like cranky-pants and sassy-pants , have exploded in popularity just over the last decade. A Google Books search for bossy pants or bossypants , for example, returns just six results from before the year 2000but almost 200 in the last 10 years. I suspect this is a byproduct of Internet culture and the way it allows for the rapid spread of words, ideas, and other social information. Readers: What do you think?