Friday March 31st, 2023 4:59AM

Pair vs. Pear and other grammatical battles

By Bill Maine Executive Vice President & General Manager

There are things in this world that perplex me.  Mind you, they aren’t things that lead one to make life-altering discoveries. My mind can’t meander to such lofty heights. Rather, these are things in the everyday world that only a bear of little brain, as Pooh would say, ponder.

Today, I’m wandering around with the word “pair” as my companion. We make quite a pair, but I don’t always agree with how my traveling companion does his job.  It makes sense when he works with socks, gloves, cuff links and earrings. But there are other times when pair is employed in jobs he shouldn’t have. At least that’s my opinion.

Not to be confused with “pear,” which should be pronounced “pier” but for some reason isn’t. (The English language is like Congress. There is always a loophole.) While you can have a pair of pears, you can’t have a pear of shoes. Pear is lucky in that he has a career. It’s narrowly defined and is specialized. Pair, on the other hand, is part of the language’s gig economy.

This was brought to mind while doing laundry. My mind asked, “why are pants referred to as a pair?” Is one leg a pant? If so, why would you ever just need one? I can’t see going to the clerk and asking for two shirts and one pant.  If I did, I’ll bet you the clerk would bring you a regular pair of pants.

“Uh, no thanks,” I’d reply. “Just one pant please.” Would a single pant come with a zipper or do you only get the zipper when you buy two pants?

My meandering led me to do a little research. I discovered that, sure enough when this craze of wearing pants started, they were separated. Seems the word “pant” is short for “pantaloons.” Back then you put on one pant and then the other. At some point the two legs were properly introduced and married giving us the convenience of not having to lose a pant in the wash the way socks go missing. It would make dressing a bit of a challenge.

“Honey, have you seen my left blue pant?”

Score one for my friend Pair, sort of. You see we also say a pair of jeans. But really that’s wrong. Jeans are just pants made from denim. One leg is not called a “jean.” It’s just a pair of pants made from a specific material. “Jeans” refers to the sailors who lived in Genoa, Italy. They would travel to Nimes, France, the town where denim was first produced. They liked the durability of the fabric. Whenever they were there, they would buy it in bulk and take it back to Genoa to be made into pants. The French nickname for these sailors from Genoa was “jeans” because they bought so much denim. Later the pants also became known by that name.

Okay, I was wrong on the pants thing. Pair keeps his job there, but not with jeans.

This idea of things that wouldn’t exist separately but are still called a pair continues to intrigue and baffle. Let’s talk tongs. If you disconnect them, is one called a tong? If so, what use would you have for a single tong? Taking apart a pair of ice tongs or salad tongs gives you spoons. We only call them tongs when they are joined. No one I know has ever asked me to hand them a tong. If they did, I’m not sure what I would give them.

Pliers are the same way. A plier by itself is pretty much useless. I picture a guy trying to tighten a nut with a single plier. Then his buddy suggests putting one on each side of the stubborn fastener. One thing led to another and necessity become a mother once again as she birthed another invention.

Same goes for a pair of glasses. When you are wearing a single lens, it’s not called a “glass.” It’s called a mono ocular or “monocle” for short. Think of Mr. Peanut. Apparently, some peanuts have poor vision. Who knew? One would then think if you had two such lenses, it would be called “binary oculars” or “binoculars” for short. Nope. That’s something else. We call them “glasses” even though no one has ever gone to the doctor and asked for a glass. If you did, your doctor would send you to a department store and you would be given something used to hold a beverage.

To be fair, binoculars are also referred to as “field glasses.” But only when there are two of them. A single field glass would be a telescope or a spy glass.  

Scissors also don’t exist outside of their union. There is no such object in the English language as a scissor. It does exist as a modifier as in “scissor lift.” But the reality of a single scissor doesn’t exist. Break apart a pair and you’ll have two knives with interestingly useful handles.

Then there are tweezers. I’ve never heard anyone ask for just one tweeze. It’s always a pair of tweezers. It’s hard to tweeze with just one side of that equation. Technically we shouldn’t ask for a pair of tweezers or a pair of scissors. It should just be tweezers and scissors, shouldn’t it?

What an interesting thing this word “pair”
It joins together things that aren’t even there…or is it their
Now that’s quite a pair!

Things that don’t exist except as pairs are “plurale tantum”
Perhaps Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” should be their anthem.

To lofty heights me thinks Pair aspires,
But sometimes me thinks he should be fired.

  • Associated Tags: Maine's Meanderings
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