The Grammarphobia Blog

On knickerbockers, knickers, and the Knicks

Q: I’m a Knicks fan and I know their name is short for Knickerbockers. But can you tell me how a basketball team got a name like that?

A: The word “knickerbockers” has been used over the years to refer to the early Dutch settlers of New York, the breeches that they wore, and New Yorkers, especially those of Dutch origin. The short form, knickers, has come to mean knee-length trousers for boys or men, and, primarily in Britain, women’s underpants (as in “Don’t get your knickers in a twist”).

The term originated with Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious pen name used by Washington Irving for his 1809 book, A History of New York. The name wasn’t entirely an invention, since Irving actually had a friend named Herman Knickerbocker, who lived near Albany.

In the late 19th century, newspaper cartoon representations of Father Knickerbocker came to symbolize New York much as Uncle Sam now represents the United States, according to the word sleuth Barry Popik.

As for the Knicks, the team’s website says the “original Knicks logo, used from the inaugural 1946-47 season through 1963-4, was that of a Father Knickerbocker figure dribbling a basketball.” What better name for a New York ball team than a symbol of New York!