January 30, 2017

knickers

January 30 is the anniversary of the death of Harmen Knickerbocker (1855), New York blueblood and notorious namesake of two things best not discussed in polite company—the New York Knicks and underwear.

n. pl. a short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment
Oxford English Dictionary

The word knickers comes from the leggings worn by the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose name was derived from the austere and very real Harmen Knickerbocker. Suffice it to say that many members of the Knickerbocker lineage in New York have had their knickers in a twist over this for the last two hundred years.

Harmen Knickerbocker was the clan patriarch of a prominent social and political family in upstate New York in the early 1800s. He was friends with the legendary writer and historian Washington Irving, who used “Knickerbocker” as a pseudonym for his creation of a crotchety Dutch historian.

Irving is most famous for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” but it was his 1809 satire A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty that made its fictional author—Diedrich Knickerbocker—a household name. Irving’s mockery of inflated local history and small-minded politics was a huge success, and the name Knickerbocker eventually became a nickname for anyone living in Manhattan (shortened to Knicks for those who merely play basketball there).

Eventually, an English edition of the book featured illustrations by the classic Charles Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, who drew the fictitious and stodgy Knickerbocker family in loose, knee-length Dutch breeches. Over the next few decades, the short and loose ladies’ undergarments that became popular in England were dubbed “knickers.”

Knickers aside, Washington Irving further lampooned New York’s power brokers in a literary magazine called Salmagundi under the pseudonyms William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff. It was here that he was the first to describe New York City as “Gotham,” which is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town.” He was also the first to coin the phrase almighty dollar, in 1837’s “The Creole Village,” and it was a dream sequence in an 1812 revision of A History of New York that first featured old St. Nick cruising the Christmas skies in a flying wagon.

But to return to pantaloons, while knickers (and their twisting) became standard British slang for delicate unmentionables, baggy trousers for women in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were called “bloomers,” named for early feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer. But that is another story.