The Grammarphobia Blog

By the seat of one’s pants

Q: I’ve often wondered what aviation has to do with the expression “to fly by the seat of one’s pants.” Can you enlighten me?

A: The expression originated as an aeronautical term in Canada around 1930 or perhaps earlier, according to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge. It originally meant to fly by instinct rather than instruments, but acting “by the seat of one’s pants” is now used more generally to mean doing something by intuition or improvisation.

Partridge traces the expression to the early pilots who flew transport planes over the unmapped Canadian North. One of the things they used to judge turn-and-bank positions, stresses, vibrations, and such was the feeling of centrifugal force against their bottoms.

The press helped popularize the expression in the United States by using it to describe the flying technique of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, who flew from New York to Ireland in 1938 when he was supposed to be flying to California. He attributed the flight to a navigational error, but many people believed it was deliberate. The government had previously refused to let him make a transatlantic trip, saying his plane wasn’t up to the ocean crossing.

And we complain about air travel today!

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