Why the Word 'Panties' Is So Awful (And What to Do About It)

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The term has hung around for generations, but now the backlash has arrived. Can this simultaneously too-sexualized and too-babyish nickname be retired?

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AP / Chris O'Meara

Every month or so, I receive a glossy coupon from Victoria's Secret in my mailbox. "Free panty!" it beckons. "No purchase necessary!"

Reading those words, I cringe a little bit. Not because I hate underwear—I'm an ardent lover of underwear. It's because I hate the word "panty." I hate the plural form of "panty" as well. "Panties" creeps me out.

And apparently I'm not alone. In addition to a slew of blog posts and message boards denouncing the word, The Huffington Post's Zoë Triska named it "the worst word ever." Cracked.com included "panties" in its list of the "Five Words That Need To Be Banned From English."

Why does the word "panties" bother so many people?

Sure, when said within the confines of a lingerie store, by an older saleswoman with a tape measure around her neck and glasses slipping down her nose, it's fine: "Did you see the black underwire has the matching panty?" But taken out of this context, the word "panty" can be grimace-inducing—and there are a few possible reasons for that.

I've heard several people refer to the word as "infantilizing." The addition of the suffix "-ies" (or in the singular form, "-y") converts the word into a diminutive. Literally: "little pants." The suffix puts it in the same category as "booties" and "blankies"—words often associated with small children. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of "panties" is from a 1908 set of instructions for making doll clothes. "The undergarment is ... easily made, for the little waist and panties are cut in one piece." Women, it seems, would rather not shimmy into a garment whose name would also suggest they are shimmying into a pair of knee socks and saddle shoes and handed an oversized lollipop.

Or, on the other hand, is "panties" such a grown-up word that it's too sexy? There's a great scene in Legally Blonde in which a bunch of old, crotchety admissions officers are reviewing Elle Woods's (Reese Witherspoon) law school application. "She designed a line of faux-fur panties for her sorority's charity project," says one, his eyes agog. "Uh-huh," says another equally dopey administrator. "She's a friend to the animals as well as a philanthropist."

It's funny. It's funny because the word is a sexual word. If you don't agree, picture your father or grandfather. Now picture him saying "panties." I admire the woman who doesn't shudder.

Why does panties sound sexual? Many arguments could be made, not the least concerning advertising. I have a hunch that the sexualization of the word "panties" is the result of some marketing focus group grasping for a word to run alongside pictures of lingerie models in "tempting" mesh undergarments. One of my male friends suggested its similarity to the word "panting." Another friend, also male, said "panties" sounds so naughty simply because it refers to something so exclusively feminine. While the word "underwear" is strictly asexual, "panties" is not. Actress Christina Hendricks, in 2011, told Esquire that "Panties is wonderful word. ... It's girly. It's naughty. Say it more." Personally, though, I don't know many women who would agree with her.

I don't believe women are categorically against using sexy words for sexy things. After all, I don't see ladies petitioning to ban "lick" or "dildo" from the popular lexicon. However, the hatred of the word "panties" comes from how disconnected the sexy word is from the function of what it means. Women's underwear serves the same utilitarian purpose a man's underwear does. However, "panties" forces us to call our underwear something sexy, when really we decide for ourselves whether our underwear is sexy or not. While saying "panties" might not be downright degrading, that's enough to leave a foul taste in a woman's mouth.

So what word could be used instead? Personally, I've always just called my bottom unmentionables "underwear." My sister, though, disagrees. "Underwear" is no dice, she says, because women have two types of underwear (bras and panties)—and how will you know which ones are being referred to?

Another friend of mine has suggested the terms "top undies" and "bottom undies," but I don't see that particular strategy catching on, either.

So far, the best alternative seems to be referring to them by their particular style, like men do: briefs, boxers, boxer-briefs, long-johns. We could call them thongs, boy-shorts, G-strings. Et cetera.

It's well-documented that women are ahead of the curve when it comes to linguistic ingenuity. When it comes to trends, women often set them rather than follow them—so if women are disgusted, then it's our responsibility to keep the conversation going. At this point, it might be a good thing to get our bottom-undies in a twist.

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Sarah Fentem is a writer based in Chicago.

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