The Grammarphobia Blog

A crotchety question

Q: I know that “go commando” means go without underwear, but how did this expression come about? I heard it for the first time several years ago when the paparazzi were taking crotch shots of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

A: The verbal phrase “go commando,” which means go without one’s skivvies, dates from the 1970s, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

A suggested explanation, which Cassell’s accompanies with a question mark, is that “tough commandos need no such ‘soft’ apparel.”

Daniel Engber, writing in Slate in 2005, asked the question “Do our commandos really go commando?” Then he answered it:

“Many commandos do forgo underpants when they suit up in the field, but the practice is by no means limited to the special forces. With limited rucksack space and infrequent opportunities to wash up or change clothes, American troops sometimes decide that clean underwear is more trouble than it’s worth.”

Engber, who writes mainly about science for Slate, added:

“In addition, going without can increase ventilation and reduce moisture in a soldier’s battle dress uniform, which in turn can minimize his chances of getting a rash or crotch rot, a fungal infection of the groin. (Whether or not they wear underpants, many soldiers use Gold Bond Medicated Powder to prevent these ailments.)”

The phrase was popularized by a 1996 episode of the sitcom Friends. The character Joey, demanding that Chandler give him back his shorts, says, “It’s a rented tux, OK? I’m not gonna go commando in another man’s fatigues.”

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