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.”