My brother recently asked me how to use pairs of words like historic/historical, mathematic/mathematical, and problematic/problematical. The typical usage advice is pretty straightforward—use historic to refer to important things from history and historical to refer to anything having to do with past events, important or not—but the reality of usage is a lot more complicated.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, historic was first used as an adjective meaning “related to history; concerned with past events” in 1594. In 1610, it appeared in the sense “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history”; sometimes this was contrasted with prehistoric. It wasn’t until 1756 that it was first used to mean “having or likely to have great historical importance or fame; having a significance due to connection with historical events.” The first edition of the OED called this “the prevailing current sense”, but the current edition notes that the other senses are still common.
The history of historical isn’t much clearer. It first appeared as an adjective meaning “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history” (sense 2 of historic) in 1425, though there aren’t any more citations in this sense until the mid- to late 1500s, about the same time that historic began to be used in this sense. Also in 1425, it appeared in the sense of a work that is based on or depicts events from history, though this sense also didn’t appear again until the late 1500s. In the broader sense “related to history; concerned with past events”, it appeared in 1521, several decades before historic appeared in this sense.
In other words, both of these words have been used in essentially all of these senses for all of their history, and they both appeared around the same time. It’s not as if one clearly came first in one sense and the other clearly came first in the other sense. There is no innate distinction between the two words, though a distinction has begun to emerge over the last century or so of use.
Other such pairs are not much clearer. The OED gives several senses for mathematical beginning in 1425, and for mathematic it simply says, “= mathematical adj. (in various senses)”, with citations beginning in 1402. Apparently they are interchangeable. Problematic/problematical seem to be interchangeable as well, though problematical is obsolete in the logic sense.
But rather than go through every single pair, I’ll just conclude with what Grammarist says on the topic:
There is no rule or consistent pattern governing the formation of adjectives ending in -ic and -ical. . . .
When you’re in doubt about which form is preferred or whether an -ic/-ical word pair has differentiated, the only way to know for sure is to check a dictionary or other reference source.
But Robinson Meyer at the Atlantic insisted that these people were all wrong, and he’d prove it with linguistics. This is certainly a laudable goal, but his argument quickly goes off the rails. After insisting that “words mean things”, as if that were in dispute, Meyer asserts that pants cover all your legs. Humans have two legs, so our pants have two legs. Dogs have four legs, so dog pants should have four legs. QED. What’s left to discuss?
Well, a lot. Even though it’s clear that words mean things, it’s a lot less clear what words mean and how we know what they mean. Semantics is a notoriously tricky field, and there are a lot of competing theories of semantics, each with its own set of problems. There are truth-conditional theories, conceptual theories, Platonist theories, structuralist theories, and more.
But rather than get bogged down in theoretical approaches to semantics (which, frankly, were never my strong suit), let’s take a more practical approach to answering that fundamental question What are pants? by thinking about what features make something pants or not pants. We’ll ignore the question of dog pants in particular for the moment and focus on people pants.
Meyer says that pants cover all your legs, but we could also say that pants cover both your legs or maybe just that they cover your two hind limbs, and we would still wind up at the same place—two-legged pants. It’s not obviously true that pants must cover all your legs. In fact, it’s rather strange to say that pants cover all your legs, because that phrasing seems to assume that you might have more than two. You’d only phrase the definition this way if you anticipated that it might have to cover four-legged dog pants, which is begging the question. The more parsimonious definition would say that you only have to cover both legs.
Meyer’s definition is also missing one important part: the butt. Pants don’t just cover your legs—they cover your body from the waist down. Depending on where they stop, you might call them shorts, Capris, pedal pushers, or just pants. But if they don’t cover your butt, they’re not pants—they’re hose or leggings or some such, though nowadays these usually go up to the waist too. (I’m using the term waist a little loosely, since it’s technically the point halfway between the hips and the ribs, and most pants sit somewhere around the hips.) So at least when it comes to humans, pants cover most or all of the pelvic area plus at least some of the legs.
Note that underpants don’t necessarily cover any of the legs, and some shorts cover barely any of the legs at all. So if you want a definition that covers underwear too, covering the butt is actually more crucial than covering the legs. Even if we assume for the sake of discussion that we’re not including underwear, simply covering the legs is not sufficient. And covering all legs, regardless of number, is obviously not necessary. We could even say that pants cover the lower or rear part of the body, starting at the hips and ending somewhere below the butt, with separate parts for each leg (to differentiate pants from skirts or dresses).
Now let’s move on to dog pants. As far as I know, the word waist isn’t usually applied to animals other than humans, though dogs still have hips and ribs. So applying the minimum definition of covering the pelvic region and at least part of the two hind limbs, the correct version is clearly the one on the right. Strangely, Meyer says that we already have a term for the image on the right, and it’s shorts, because shorts cover only some of your legs. But this is playing really fast and loose with the definition of some. Shorts cover some part of each leg, not all of some leg. And anyway, shorts are simply a subset of pants, so if the image on the right is shorts, then it’s also pants.
The one on the left covers not just the legs but also the entire ventral side of the torso, which pants don’t normally do. Even overalls cover only part of the front of the torso, and they don’t cover the forelimbs. The closest term we have for something like the image on the left is jumpsuit, but it’s a backless, buttless jumpsuit. The image on the left makes sense as pants only if you’re fixated on covering all legs rather than just two and don’t mind omitting necessary feature of pants while adding some unnecessary features. Not only that, it’s not a very practical garment—as Jay Hathaway at New York Magazine points out, it wouldn’t even stay up unless you have some sort of suspenders going side to side over the back.
And this points out the real flaw in Meyer’s argument. He says that humans wear two-legged pants because we have two legs, but this isn’t really true. We probably wouldn’t wear four-legged pants if we had four legs, because it doesn’t make sense to design an article of clothing like that. Consider the fact that we don’t design clothes differently for babies just because they crawl on all fours.
Pants have nothing to do with which limbs we stand on and everything to do with how we’re shaped. We wear one article of clothing to cover the top halves of our bodies and another to cover the bottom halves because it’s easy to pull one article over the top and one over the bottom. Dogs aren’t shaped that differently from us, so when we make clothes for dogs, we make them the same way. Pants just happen to cover two legs on people because our two hind limbs just happen to be legs.
Besides, the whole question is moot because dog pants already exist, and they’re of the two-legged variety. What should we call them if not pants? Insisting that they’re not pants comes as a result of getting hung up on a supposed technical definition and then clinging to that technical definition in the face of all good sense.
And consider this: if dog pants have four legs and no back or butt, what would a dog shirt look like?
“This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” —not Churchill, but maybe some anonymous government official, or maybe no one at all
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