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Article Archive >> Community

Reflections: Why do we call a single item a pair?

Reflections
Why do we call a single item a pair?
By William L. Bulla
Weekly Contributing Writer

Why is a "single" garment referred to as a "pair"? "A pair of pants" is a good illustration of this peculiar "pair" phenomenon. We have coat, jacket, shirt, bra, and other apparel worn on the upper body referred to as a single unit, but a single unit of apparel worn below the waist such as pants, shorts, swim trunks are referred to in the plural form "as a pair of ..."
My research revealed that what we now call "pants" or "trousers" were originally known as "pantaloons," after Pantalone, a stock character in 16th century Italian theatrical comedy, usually portrayed as an old man wearing short, baggy pants.
But "pants" in the 16th century differs from today's in that each leg was a separate garment, donned in succession and then belted together at the waist. Thus it made sense to call these "two-piece britches" a "pair" of pants, and the usage stuck long after pants were unified.
However, calling things pairs go beyond the "pants" issue. Correctly we address two of the same items as "pairs". There are the like things that come in pairs: a pair of shoes; a pair of socks; a pair of gloves; a pair of earrings; a pair of chopsticks or a pair of crutches. One without the other is incomplete.
Then we enter that strange area again. What about the single items we refer to as pairs? We speak of a pair of glasses. Why weren't they called a pair of monocles instead? The "monocle," a single corrective lens worn squeezed between the brow and cheek, was fashionable in the 19th century. The past popularity of the lone monocle is the reason two were hooked together, and we call them a "pair of glasses" today.
"Binoculars" were developed within just a few years after the invention of the first telescope in the early 17th century. People realized that a "two-eyed" view through a telescope would be better than the close-one-eye-and-squint method. So they literally bolted two small matched telescopes together, and the "binocular telescope" was born. "Pair of binoculars" makes even less sense than "pair of pants," since "binocular" already contains the concept of "two".
Have you ever thought about the number of other things we use everyday that come in pairs? Probably not! But, the fact is, there are other "pairs" out there, including some that have never been used in single form, such as "pliers", "tongs," "tweezers" and "scissors," but in such cases "pair" simply carries the sense of something made of two joined or corresponding parts, both of which are needed for the thing to function.

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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