Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Pants On Fire!
With Election Day behind us, everyone in my swing-state household can breathe their respective sighs of relief, savoring the sudden absence of all the recorded campaign phone calls, all the back-to-back TV commercials for Romney and Obama, all the emails pleading that one candidate or another just needs 8 more dollars from each of us by the end of the day. And we can stop hearing about the fact-checking organization Politifact's truth rankings for claims made in commercials, debates, and stump speeches.
Politifact ranks political statements on a scale running from "true" through "mostly true," "half true," "barely true," and "false." But you wouldn't have known that from the newspapers or radio news reports, because the Politifact ranking they always reported was the falser-than-false, crank-it-up-to-11 ranking of "Pants on Fire!"
The "Pants on Fire" ranking alludes to the schoolyard rhyme:
Liar, liar, pants on fire,
Hanging by a telephone wire!
Wikipedia lists variants that have "Your belt's hanging on the telephone wire!", and (inspired by Pinocchio, one assumes) "Your nose is long as a telephone wire!" On the discussion forum for Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett's radio show "A Way with Words," one thread also mentions, "You can't get over a telephone wire."
Looking into the history of the expression "pants on fire," I found a blog post from etymologist Barry Popik on the subject. It, too, was inspired by Politifact's ranking system. Popik's earliest attestation is from 1941, with the "your nose" variant, though he also turned up a pantsless version from 1937: "Liar, liar, your tongue's on fire!"
I also found repeated, numerous times, a completely bogus origin of the phrase. It's a doggerel poem called "The Liar," which (according to Popik) first began appearing in the 2000s, but which is almost always unquestioningly attributed to the Romantic poet William Blake, with a date of 1810. Maybe it's appropriate that the said origin of "The Liar" is itself a lie, but for me, it deflates the enjoyment of what is otherwise an entertaining poem. It begins with the line:
Deceiver, dissembler, your trousers are alight!
Linguists use the term calque to refer to what in (slightly) more transparent language is sometimes called a "loan translation": a more-or-less word-for-word translation of a foreign phrase, which then becomes part of the borrowing language's idiom inventory. (I wrote about calques in this column about called on the carpet; and fellow Visual Thesaurus columnist Orin Hargraves wrote more about them here.) I love the first line of "The Liar" because it's essentially an English-to-English calque: from a decidedly informal "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" to the more formal and old-fashioned sounding "Deceiver, dissembler, your trousers are alight!" The only thing that would have made it better would have been to replace your with thy. (Actually, the poem does use thine later, but only because it needed a rhyme for mine — an inconsistency noted by skeptics.)
Though the origin of "Liar, liar, pants on fire" is obscure prior to 1941, the components of it and its calque are interesting in and of themselves. As recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verbs lie "tell a falsehood" and lie "recline" began as separate Old English verbs: leogan and licgan, respectively. But by 1588 they had fallen together enough to produce theOED's first attestation of the pun "lie like a dog." Deceive and dissemble, meanwhile, are French borrowings in the Middle English period, deriving from the original Latin verbs decipere"capture in a trap" and dissimulare "to disguise." Like many Latinate borrowings, these words have a more formal feel than their native English synonyms, which contributes to the sterner tone of "Deceiver, dissembler!"
Both pants and trousers entered the language in the late 1500s or early 1600s, according to the OED. Actually, that's not entirely true. At the end of the 16th century, the word that would ultimately give us pants was the proper noun Pantaloon, and it referred to a theatrical character "representing authority and the older generation, typically depicted as a lean, foolish old man in a predominantly red costume …." (OED). Part of this costume was the legwear that became known as pantaloons, plural, in the mid-17th century. The shortened form pants came a couple of centuries later. Trousers, on the other hand, came from an Irish word in the late 16th century, already referring to legwear.
Since the mid-1800s, pants and trousers have gone in somewhat different directions in British and American English. In both varieties, trousers increased until peaking in 1945 (according to the new and improved Google Ngram graphic shown below), but even then, trousers was more frequent in British English than in American English, a situation that began in 1927 and still holds today.
The British still use the word pants, but these days, it more often refers to what Americans would call underpants. For more on the meaning differences between British and American English for pants and pants-derived words, read this 2011 Boston Globe column by Jan Freeman. One recent British English meaning for pants that Freeman doesn't mention is "utter rubbish", which Michael Quinion discusses on his World Wide Words website. As for the latest pants slang in American English, Jessica Dweck wrote in this Slate article about the proliferation of pants as an adjectival suffix in words such as smartypants.
The counterpart to on fire in "The Liar" is alight. Like liar/deceiver/dissembler and pants/trousers, these two terms share a meaning, but unlike the other pairings, these two have different parts of speech. On fire is a prepositional phrase, whereas alight is an adjective. Or is it?
All the English adjectives that begin with this unstressed a-, including ablaze and afire, as well as non-incendiary members such as aboard, afraid, atwitter, and astride, lack an ability that the most typical adjectives have. First, let's look at how they are like other adjectives. Take an adjective, such as dishonest. You can use it as a complement of a linking verb, as in Your candidate is dishonest, or They all seem dishonest. You can use it after a noun or pronoun it describes, without a linking verb in between, as in We like our politicians dishonest, or Don't call me dishonest, or You did something dishonest. These are the so-called predicative uses. Adjectives such as alight can be used predicatively, too, as in Your trousers are alight!
Adjectives like alight differ from ordinary adjectives in that they can't be used attributively. That is, although you can talk about a dishonest politician, you can't talk about your *alight trousers, or your *aboard passengers, *afraid children, *atwitter crowds, or *astride riders. The reason for this peculiarity is that these adjectives are hanging onto the vestiges of origins as … prepositional phrases. The prefix a- developed historically from the preposition on. In other words, on fire and afire share not only their meaning, but also their syntax. The reason we don't talk about *afire trousers is the same reason that we don't talk about *on fire pants: Prepositional phrases as a rule come after the nouns they modify, not before them.
The first time I heard that a campaign ad had received a "Pants on Fire" rating, I laughed. By the fourth or fifth or 80th time I heard it, though, I was remembering a passage from Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (spoken by a Russian character, hence the missing articles):
Are two types of jokes. One sort goes on being funny forever. Other sort is funny once. Second time it's dull. This joke is second sort.
Here's hoping we hear a lot less about legwear ablaze in 2016!