Q. Why do we insist on calling it/them a “pair of” pants, scissors, tweezers, etc., when there’s only one of them? Why don’t we just tell someone to buy us two pants, rather than two pairs of pants, which someone unfamiliar with our language might mistake as four? — D.A., of Fairview Heights
A. They say it takes two to tango — a pair of dancers, you might say. So, in simple terms, whenever an object requires two identical halves to make it work, it usually has come to be referred to as a pair of something or other. It’s like the old song about love and marriage — you can’t have one without the other.
It’s been that way since at least 1297, when, linguistics experts say, someone jotted down “a peire of hosen.” Now you’ll probably say that socks are individual items in the first place, but experts would reply that once one sock has been eaten by a vampire dryer, the pair is no longer useful. Similarly, if a lens pops out of your eyeglasses and shatters, it’s time to visit your optometrist. You want two lenses — a pair of glasses — not a monocle.
Tools are the same way. I’d like to see you loosen a nut with half a pliers, remove a splinter with tweezers that have been pulled apart like a wishbone or cut paper with scissors that have lost their connecting screw. Notice that the word itself requires a plural verb.
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In fact, this apparently was taken this to the extreme in the past. At one time, it reportedly was common to speak of a pair of compasses (the kind you used in math class), a pair of bellows and even a pair of nutcrackers, but such usage has faded over the centuries.
Pants have a particularly interesting history, tracing their story to, of all things, a popular 15th-century Italian comedy. The star character was an outrageously silly old man named Pantaleone, who took the stage in bizarre trousers whose legs were tight around the shin but blossomed like a petticoat from the knee to the hip. As this play toured other countries, anybody sporting unusual trousers in England was said to be wearing “pantaloons,” which eventually was shortened to “pants.”
Why a pair of them? Apparently because, like pliers and tweezers, the most prominent feature are the two legs. Think about it — if you were wearing a buttoned sport coat, the only thing you’d notice would be the two legs. And since pants with one leg wouldn’t be terribly useful, calling them a pair of pants seemed like a good call.
You could, of course, argue, that since garments for the upper part of the body have two arms, they should be called a pair of shirts or pair of sweaters. However, most would argue that they mostly cover the torso and not the extremities, so it’s singular and not a pair. And even though they have no legs, panties and briefs are so close enough to pants that they rate a “pair” designation.
As Spock might have said, no one ever accused human language as being completely logical.
Q. I am trying to convince friends that, many years ago, there was a food store across the street from the old Lyle Fischer tavern on East Main Street. I think it was called Foodland or Shopland, but, either way, my friends say I’m losing it. Am I? While I’m at it, wasn’t there a bowling alley nearby, too? — G.S., of Belleville
A. You should have bet them a year’s worth of free groceries, because you would have been in the chips (and salsa).
Not only was there a grocery story, but it was a neighborhood fixture for two decades. According to Belleville city directories, a Herbert Kaufmann ran Food-Land Market on the corner of East Main and North Virginia from about 1945 to 1965. The exact address was 1119, and it was directly across the street from Fischer’s popular watering hole and restaurant.
In 1966, it was briefly listed as D&S Bi-Rite grocers, but since then, it has been used, among other things, as a music store (Sunny Shields) and tire shop (United). Most recently the building has housed an array of coin, fashion, pawn and jewelry shops.
Shopland, by the way, was the grocery run by Jack Tzinberg from about 1963 to 1985 at 6930 W. Main St. (You can still see the old sign at the strip mall now anchored by Ace Hardware.) In 1977, Tzinberg added a second location in the former A&P grocery at 1000 S. Illinois St., which is now home to the St. Clair County Regional Superintendent of Schools.
As for the bowling alley, a long-time resident of North Pennsylvania assures me there were a set of lanes just up the block, where Fantasy Books is today. It’s not listed in city directories, but it likely was part of the Belle-Villa Tavern, which served up cold, frosty ones in the 1950s at 1111 E. Main.
For mature audiences: How did Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe come to be known as jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: According to legend, English manufacturer Fredrick Walton was inspired to invent a new floor covering when he noticed that linseed oil formed a skin when applied to paint. Based on this observation, he mixed linseed oil with tree resins, ground limestone, cork dust, wood flour and pigments and pressed it onto a jute backing. At first, he reportedly called it Kampticon so he could sell it to compete with an existing product known as Kamptulicon that was made from cork and rubber. But he soon changed the name to the one that is still familiar today: “linoleum,” derived from the Latin words “linum” and “oleum” for “flax oil,” another name for linseed oil.