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By rights, we should have started Fraser’s Phrases with this, because no single turn of phrase better illustrates what a mutual appreciation society the American and British versions of the English language are.
You’re probably aware of the term don’t get your knickers in a twist, or something extremely similar; and know that it’s used to belittle an angry person who has taken unreasonable umbrage at something. Most often it’ll be something you’ve done that you don’t feel warrants as emotional a response as it seems to have provoked.
The idea being that the person who is upset is projecting a minor irritation that can easily be remedied. Whether they agree with this assessment is neither here nor there. Your judgement is all that matters.
But there are strong regional variations in the words used, and with good reason. Here’s why:
It’s all the fault of one rich Dutch settler, heading for the New World in 1682. Harmen Jansen van Wijhe Knickerbocker, arrived, thrived and bought large amounts of what was then New Amsterdam, and bequeathed it to his seven children, spreading the name far and wide. Washington Irving, when writing his satirical A History of New York, invented the character of Diedrich Knickerbocker as the narrator, named after a friend of his: a descendent of Harmen’s named Herman. This Knickerbocker represented a certain kind of New York Dutch aristocracy, who were known to wear knee-breeches and smoke pipes long after fashions had changed. The fact that Washington had largely invented the social phenomenon he described is no longer important.
So knickerbockers became a slang word for both New Yorkers of Dutch heritage and knee-breeches, of the sort worn in the game of base-ball. The founding of the New York Knickerbockers did little to change this situation. And eventually the word became associated with all manner of Big Apple ephemera, from beer to nightclubs to ice-cream sundaes.
Over in Britain, A History of New York was illustrated by George Cruikshank, who also worked on the stories of Charles Dickens, and he drew Diedrich Knickerbocker as an old-timer in short breeches, which again became known as knickerbockers. And for as long as these breeches continued to be a staple of male fashion, that is what they were called. However, when the fashion for ladies’ undergarments shifted from bloomers to shorter garments, of a similar length to knickerbockers, they were known as knickers.
Since then, knickerbockers have fallen from common use (and developed fresh names such as plus-fours, seemingly used exclusively by golfers), meanwhile the generic British term for a woman’s underpants has become knickers. It’s far more commonly used than panties or pants or underwear. Lingerie is still lingerie, thongs are thongs, but the umbrella term for that garment as a whole is knickers.
So if you’re a man who’s been told not to get your knickers in a twist, not only are your angry feelings being dismissed, there’s a chance you’re being called a girl too. Suck it up, weakling!
Now, I’m well aware that this idiom has been taken and repurposed for American use, panties or shorts has been substituted for knickers and bunch or knot or bundle for twist, but these are broadswords at a fencing bout. Yes they say the same thing, and yes your point is made, but in overstating the case, in emphasising the shape of the obstructive wad of fabric, you lose the idea that this is just a trivial moment of discomfort, and easily remedied. The more dramatic you make the source of irritation, the less pathetic the huff that you are attempting to dismiss seems.
Plus there’s something very pleasing about the way don’t get your knickers in a twist rolls off the tongue. And I’m not the only person who approves of these words. Chocolate bar manufacturers do too. Cadbury’s have the Twist, and Mars have Snickers.
Of course, stuffy old Britain could hardly be seen to approve of such dreadful filth (we’ve got over it since then) and immediately renamed the peanut-laden bar Marathon. This might seem weird, but would you want to eat a chocolate bar called Spanties? Actually, forget that, that’s a bad example, I’ve just remembered Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers and now I’m wondering if the entire history of confectionary is just a graveyard of bad innuendo.
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic