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Last updated at 18:50 GMT, Tuesday, 09 November 2010

Go Commando

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John Ayto explains the origin, meaning and use of the expression 'go commando'.

Underwear hanging out to dry

Go Commando

Linguists talk of lexical gaps – concepts or things that don’t have a particular word or phrase with which we can refer to them.

Now here’s a concept to conjure with: to go about in public fully clothed as far as your outer clothing is concerned, but without any underpants. You might not find it surprising that until quite recently, English had no single expression to refer to this curious practice, but now it has two.

One is ‘free balling’, and the other, which in the last few years has become quite widely known, is ‘go commando’. This seems to have originated, perhaps as early as the 1970s, as a slang term on American college campuses, but the reasons behind it remain mysterious.

Now commandos are soldiers who go on surprise raids into enemy territory, and some have claimed that there may be a practical explanation for the phrase: perhaps that commandos find that underpants are uncomfortable and restrict their movement, or even waste too much time to take off if they suddenly need to go to the toilet.

Or is it more symbolic: that strong, brave, active men, as we suppose commandos to be, don’t wear underpants? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it’s comforting that such a glaring gap in English vocabulary has at last been filled.

About John Ayto

John Ayto

John Ayto is a lexicographer and a writer on words and language. He began his dictionary career as one of the editors of the first edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and over the past twenty years he has produced a range of his own books on the history and use of words, including the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang and Twentieth-Century Words, a survey of the new words that came into the English language during the twentieth century. He edited the 17th edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and he has broadcast extensively on lexical matters.