It's All Pants Round Your Ankles

Superman's only vulnerability

In 2001, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day said ’Pants to Poverty'. It encouraged the public to ‘sport their pants with pride’, ultimately raising £55 million for worthy causes.

In Blighty, pants are undergarments. It’s not that simple though. The definition of pants in British English not only confirms my understanding of the word, but clouds the issue by also stating they are trousers. Our friends across the Pond say pants for trousers, as do certain regions of England, who then call what I know as pants, underpants. The word pants derives from pantaloons which, as far as I can tell, you wear similar to trousers. How an over-garment became an undergarment is a problem for another day.

In passing, I struggled for a while to recollect many slang words for trousers. The best I could do was strides (in a similar vein you have kicks as slang for shoes). Flicking through a Cockney’s dictionary of slang they gave me Callard and Bowsers (shortened to Callards). Richard Callard and John Bowser were two Scots who established Callard and Bowser as a confectionery business in 1779 Glasgow. Through much merger and acquisition activity beginning in the early 1980s, it now finds itself owned by Wrigley who themselves are owned by Mars. Callards most famous product is Altoids. I therefore propose that the slang for trousers is Altoids.

With the definition of pants all clear in our minds, I’ll now fog it and inform you that pants is also a British slang term for something that’s a bit rubbish. Such as:

The Liverpool goalie let in five simple shots, he’s pants ain’t he?

So back to 2001 and Comic Relief having us wearing our underwear with pride. I guess that meant we all adhered to the Superman style of dressing. Being Comic Relief, there must also be a comedic reference within their strap-line - but what it is I’m struggling to identify, other than the comedy effect of wearing your pants over your trousers. Taking the slang use for pants would have us saying rubbish to poverty, and that doesn’t sit well in my mind. Another problem for another day.

As a child, the slang term for pants I used was kaks. It could similarly be used as the slang use of pants:

The Liverpool goalie let in five simple shots, he’s kak ain’t he?

I would not have used pants as meaning rubbish - this seems rather newer usage. I used kak in both senses but when used as meaning rubbish it was much stronger in tone: i.e. he’s a bit shit. This is where it gets interesting.

Children don’t really care where words come from: i.e. their etymology. Through trial and error, they learn to use them in the right context. This is not the case for slang (and swear) words. The school of learning for these was very much the playground. Using the wrong slang word or using slang in the wrong context was rapidly rectified by your peers to much amusement for them and embarrassment to you. Being much older, wiser, and with a little more time on my hands, I can inspect words a little more thoroughly. It’s taking me down some very long and deep rabbit holes to interesting places.

Kak, in the sense of being a bit shit, comes from the Pan-Indo-European (PIE) root kakka meaning to defecate. An alternative spelling of kak is cack. I learnt this through the research for this post via a Guardian article’s reader’s comment, which spelled kak as cack. The latter is probably a more natural British English spelling (kak, in British English, derives from Afrikaans slang for faeces or rubbish. Strange I went with that spelling but top points for realising it was not a natural British English way of spelling), but up until now I had not seen either in writing. So the first time I put pen to paper I went with kak and this fortuitously has more interesting links with other words of similar meaning. Cack derives from the Latin cacare and Greek kakkh, to have a shit (or the shit thus produced). So that all fits back well with my non-pants use of kak, but not so much the pants use.

Albeit I’m a native English speaker, I don’t know all the words (I have to hum sometimes). It’s a rare event when a new word pops up, or a word appears to have a meaning different to the one I expected/assumed/knew. Upon so popping, I will investigate further to find out etymology, and additionally plug a few previously unknown gaps in my understanding or, more likely, update my assumption of what a word meant. The word kakistocracy kicked off the investigation for me this time: it was a brand new word. I didn’t know its actual definition, though I could hazard its meaning given the context it was being used in.

Kakistocracy: Noun. A government by the least able or worst citizens. Origin from Greek kakistos worst and kratos rule.

Somewhat surprising given politically what has occurred over the last four or five years, based upon your views on such matters, that it took so long for this word to land in my angular gyrus’ in-box. The always informative (even more so if you are, unlike me, an Apple user) and topically relevant Daring Fireball posted about an event from the Trump administration and used the word. My initial stutter at the word to identify meaning got me the above definition. Kak had immediately sprang to mind in the ‘he’s a bit kak’-sense of the word. I then read this etymology from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

kakistocracy (n.) “government by the worst element of a society,” 1829, coined (by Thomas Love Peacock) on analogy of its opposite, aristocracy, from Greek kakistos “worst,” superlative of kakos “bad” (which perhaps is related to PIE root *kakka- “to defecate”) + -cracy. Perhaps the closest word in ancient Greek was kakonomia “a bad system of laws and government,” hence kakonomos “with bad laws, ill-governed.”

Well, that certainly tied it up rather conveniently for me. Enough of this shit! Let’s have a look at kakistocracy’s suffix ‘-cracy’.

-cracy from the Ancient Greek -kratía, meaning power, rule, government.

There are many words in the English language which end with this suffix. A non-exhaustive list includes:

  • aristocracy: a class of people who have a high social rank and special titles

  • autocracy: government or control by one person who has complete power

  • bureaucracy: administrative system operated by numerous officials

  • democracy: government elected by people

  • gerontocracy: government by old people

  • gynecocracy: government by a woman or women

  • isocracy: government in which all people have equal powers

  • meritocracy: people get status or rewards for achievement

  • mobocracy: rule by a mob

  • monocracy: government by one person

  • ochlocracy: rule by the mob

  • pantisocracy: government where all rule equally

  • plantocracy: rule by planters (i.e. plantation owners)

  • plutocracy: rule by the wealthiest people

  • slavocracy: rule by slave-holders

  • stratocracy: military rule

  • technocracy: rule by technical knowledge.

  • thalassocracy: the government of a nation having dominion over large expanses of the seas

  • theocracy: rule by priests who represent a god.

  • timocracy: government in which property ownership is requisite as a qualification for office

With the passing of time, a word’s meaning changes. Whereas the pure use of the suffix ‘-cracy’ would mean a word relates to ruling or power, it nowadays includes class: i.e. aristocracy. Ironically, I see no other class within the above list. Far be it from me to suggest that the wealthy of a bygone age ‘sponsored’ a subtle change of the suffix ‘-cracy’ meaning. Well, knock me down with a feather, they already had plutocracy (the prefix ‘pluto’ coming from the Greek ploutos meaning wealth). Perhaps they were falling on hard times and, in need of maintaining their ‘cracy’ over all and sundry, adopted the new moniker of aristocracy. ‘Aristo’ derives from the Greek aristos meaning the best of its kind, noblest, bravest, most virtuous. Hmm, they certainly said pants to their poverty.

By way of further comic relief, create your own suffix ‘-cracy’ words. Leave them in the comments below. One I stumbled across whilst researching was the film ‘Idiocracy’. A cult film by all accounts and from the critics’ response one to look out for. You could make a whole heap of them from animalisines. To start:

animalisocracy: government based upon a single reading of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Extra points for humorous definitions.