The Grammarphobia Blog

A singular undergarment

Q: I have a silly question: Why does my wife put on a “pair” of panties, but not a “pair” of bras? People say panties are plural because you’re putting two legs into them. Forgive me, but aren’t you putting two breasts into a bra? My wife accuses me of using this question as a ploy to get women to discuss their underwear. I hope you don’t feel that way!

A: Great question! And I have no hesitation talking about ladies’ underwear in the cause of a greater good–proper English usage.

Before the invention of the modern bra, women wore what was called a “bodice,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “an inner garment for the upper part of the body, quilted and strengthened with whalebone.”

And this word “bodice” was originally plural, because it started life in the 17th century as “bodies,” the plural of “body,” a word for the upper part of a woman’s dress.

As the OED says: “even with the spelling bodice the word was formerly (like pence, mice, dice, truce) treated as a plural.” It frequently appeared in the phrase “a pair of bodies” or “a pair of bodice.”

Here are some early usages: “the bones want setting in her old bodies” (1618); “having a pair of bodice on” (1679); “a pair of new blewish Bodice” (1706).

Why the plural “bodies” (and later “bodice”) for the undergarment? Not because of the dual nature of the breasts themselves, but because the garment came in two parts and was laced together.

That’s probably why the modern woman doesn’t put on “a pair of bras” in the morning. Now that the garment is in one piece, the pluralness isn’t there anymore.

But “pants,” “panties,” “jeans,” and “trousers” still retain their two-legged character. In the same way, things like “scissors,” “tweezers,” “pliers,” “glasses,” and “spectacles” will always have a two-ness about them.

In case, you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog item about this two-ish business once before.

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