I just discovered, via aldiboronti at Wordorigins, the expression a pair of stairs, used to mean (in the OED’s words) ‘A set or flight of stairs or steps; (also) a portable set of steps.’ It strikes me as deeply counterintuitive, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard or seen it, but it clearly used to be in common use; here are the OED citations:

c1450 J. CAPGRAVE Solace of Pilgrims (Bodl. 423) 77 Thann go we down on a peyr greces in to a chapel thei clepe ierlm.
1530 J. PALSGRAVE Lesclarcissement 182 Vngz degrez, a payre of stayres.
1602 H. PLATT Delightes for Ladies sig. H3v, A maide that fell downe a paire of staires.
1628 J. EARLE Micro-cosmogr. xiii. sig. C10v, A Tauerne Is a degree, or (if you will) a paire of stayres aboue an Alehouse.
1684 Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 14 443 Being.. not able.. to have past through a Gallery down a pair of Stairs into the Court.
1730 Inventory R. Woolley’s Goods 11 A Pair of wooden Steps.
1755 in J. A. Picton City of Liverpool: Select. Munic. Rec. II. 155 A breast wall and pair of steps from the shore or road up to the Ladies’ Walk.
1761 G. COLMAN in St. James’s Chron. 18 June 1/2, I could as easily have scaled the Monument, as have come at the Tip of her Chin without the Help of a Pair of Steps.
1839 DICKENS Nicholas Nickleby xli. 402 An old black velvet cap, which, by slow degrees, as if its wearer were ascending a ladder or pair of steps, rose above the wall.
1884 J. EASTWOOD & W. A. WRIGHT Bible Word-bk. (ed. 2) s.v., We still speak of a ‘pair’ of steps or stairs.
1903 W. D. HOWELLS Lett. Home v. 33 It all ended.. in our finding these two rooms, five pair up, in an apartment with respectable people who are glad to let them.
1923 Times 4 Dec. 16 (caption) Mr. Lloyd George is standing on a pair of steps steadied by porters.
1928 A. E. PEASE Dict. Dial. N. Riding Yorks. 92/2 Pair of stairs, the usual term for a ‘flight’ of stairs or a staircase.
1991 B. ALDISS Frankenstein Unbound (BNC) xx. 172, I.. seized a pair of steps, used to reach the higher shelves; I dragged the steps to the middle of the room.
1995 Daily News (N.Y.) (Nexis) 16 Oct. 20 The lines snaked around the block and down a pair of stairs, into a large exhibition hall.

I’m quite sure they’ve misunderstood the last quote, which must refer to two parallel staircases. I presume some of you have seen the expression used (e.g., in Dickens), but do any of you use it yourselves, or know someone who does?

(Oddly, a pair of arrows means three of them, or did traditionally: “Now chiefly… with reference to the ceremonial obligations of the Royal Company of Archers.”)


  1. Interesting. I’m sure my father (mid 50s, English) uses “pair of steps” to refer to a stepladder (the sort that folds out in an A-frame). This usage is pretty intuitive. But I’ve never come across it as a synonym for a staircase or flight of steps. Google Books mentions it as a Northamptonshire phrase, although I’ve no idea how true that might be.

  2. seegespenst says

    My parents (born 1920s) and my grandfather (born 1890s0, all from north-east England, similarly used “pair of steps” or “pair of ladders” to refer to a stepladder — makes sense since it is, essentially, a pair of short ladders joined with a hinge. But I never heard “pair of stairs” at all.

  3. I’ve heard pair of steps from a tradesman, but I thought he was referring to a minimal two-step hinged ladder, which would have made perfect sense at the time. Now I’ll never be sure what he meant.
    Cf. a pair of virginals.

  4. Perhaps the underlying meaning of pair is simply “a complete set” – complete as in having just that amount that is sufficient to make the set of things useful – and that the usage of the term was once more broad and could have included sets of things in numbers greater than two (or otherwise indefinitely partitive). It may be that the preponderance of mundane things which happen to work best in sets of no more than or no less than two things (what use is one pant, or one plier?) eventually led to its current usage as referring specifically to sets of two.

  5. Agreeing with ideomorph, this also via Google Books:
    From an article called “The Antiquities of the Organ”, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1857:
    There has been considerable discussion as to the meaning of the old expression, “a pair of organs;” but in Dr. Rimbault’s opinion, the term meant simply an organ with more pipes than one. Johnson, Heywood, and other of the older poets, he remarks, always use the term pair in the sense of an aggregate, and as synomymous with set; thus we have “a pair of chessmen,” “a pair of beads,” “a pair of cards,” “a par of organs,” &c.
    [end of quote]
    In Dutch usage, “paar” can mean a pair of two, or just “a few”.

  6. See also discussion at the end of this page:

  7. …what use is one pant…?
    Right, but as discussed some other time, a pant and a trouser are in fact heard on the street.
    For extended senses of a pair, consider also extended senses of a couple.

  8. Here are the number of Google hits for a few phrases:
    “the flight of stairs” = 53,800
    “down the flight of stairs” = 12,900
    “the pair of stairs” = 18,300
    “down the pair of stairs” = 1
    In the first case, the ratio is about 4 to 1, and in the second case it’s 18,300 to 1. So “pair” and “flight” seemed to be used in different ways.
    I wonder if someone can express what the difference is. Maybe this is a job for another blog…

  9. My impression from general reading is that “pair of stairs” was common in the 18th century. I had always assumed that it derived from the fact that in tall buildings there are usually two flights doubling back on each other between each floor, to save space, but this may be completely untrue.
    How many compasses in a pair?

  10. Hmm. Well, there are also quite commonly sets of three and four flight stair configurations (donut stairs… mmmmm), and of course spiral stairs with and without landings (which are the most space-efficient, but aren’t frequently used anymore due to code compliance). In general, I’ve never heard of any more than one compass at a time. Although, you would expect that to follow the same paradigm.

  11. “Pair of stairs” seems to be used in discussing fantasy-beast-dungeon games, apparently as a straightforward alternative to “flight of stairs”.
    “…climb the stairs and the stairs above it and kill the red skeletons and go down the next pair of stairs.”
    “…go up the second pair of stairs; it will lead you to the Higher Plane.”
    google: “pair of stairs” game FAQ
    Surprising to me.

  12. “Pair of stairs” seems to be used in discussing fantasy-beast-dungeon games, apparently as a straightforward alternative to “flight of stairs”.
    That is extremely interesting; I wonder if it has to do with fantasy gamers being the kind of people who read old literature in which the expression was used?
    It seems clear that “pair of stairs” and “pair of steps” are quite separate, the former being obsolete (except, apparently, among fantasy gamers) and the latter still in use. As seegespenst says, it makes sense “since it is, essentially, a pair of short ladders joined with a hinge.”

  13. Darn. We just had Dragon-con in Atlanta. I could have done some participant observation…

  14. In general, I’ve never heard of any more than one compass at a time.
    Were you not taught to draw circles using a pair of compasses in elementary geometry class?

  15. Chris, at my school in Virginia in the 1970s, we just called that a compass. It wasn’t like scissors or pliers.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Years ago I learned that in English “a compass” was the instrument used to find the North, with a magnetized “needle” over a dial (= French une boussole), while the instrument used for drawing circles and portions thereof was “compasses”, consisting of two connected parts which are almost identical except that one ends in a needlelike point and the other holds a pencil or similar writing gadget (= French un compas). This feature makes “compasses” similar to scissors or pliers, hence “a pair of compasses” like “a pair of scissors”. However, this is not a word or phrase that I have had much need to use or hear spoken in the English-speaking portion of my life, so I cannot comment on how widespread the two variants are.
    I find “a pair of stairs” very strange, and can’t remember ever encountering it until now.

  17. marie-lucie has the same understanding as I do. I wonder if this is an Atlantic divide. I also had a pair of dividers in my geometry set.

  18. Michael Farris says

    I’ve never heard (or at least never noticed) “compasses” before in US English.
    When I was at school, it was always “a compass” (like “a slide rule”) and not like “a pair of scissors”.

  19. fimus scarabaeus says

    Pair of trousers,pants, or nice legs, arms, compass [drawing instrument] or any item that split in two but joined at the hip, be pair likewise a pair of steps [the hinge ] stairs that has a guard rail or looped back [for one to change direction]thereby describing that said item has two segments but be one item.
    Un fortunately the Grammer [sic] police be unpolitical so we can get away with sluffing off as we want the lowest common denominators of freedom of expression to be part of the democratic process, no oligarcy or malarky.

  20. p.s. I first learned British English.

  21. Only ever singular compass for the drawing instrument, in the vernacular Australian of my schooldays.

  22. I can’t remember what I learned to call it half a century ago, and I’m not even sure what I call it now — such are the perils of excessive concentration on language! But I just asked my wife what you call that thing you draw circles with, and she said confidently “a compass.”

  23. Huh — in Russian there are three words, компас (kómpas) for ‘instrument for determining direction,’ буссоль (bussól’) for ‘surveyor’s compass,’ and циркуль (tsírkul’) for ‘instrument for describing circles.’ The first is from German (and Vasmer tells me a popular word for it is matka ‘little mother’), the second from French, and the third from Polish (itself from German, and that from Latin). Now that I look at the OED I see the history of compass is incredibly messy; I guess I’ll have to blog it.

  24. David Marjanović says

    In Dutch usage, “paar” can mean a pair of two, or just “a few”.

    Same in German. Even the spelling is the same, except that in the first sense it is a noun and gets a capital letter, while in the second it’s considered an adverb or something and is lowercase. “A couple” has been mentioned above, and I’d consider it a 1 : 1 translation.
    “A pair of scissors” has always striked me as exceedingly complicated; German: eine Schere. That’s part of a general trend in German: the plural forms Hosen “trousers/pants” and Brillen “glasses” are still allowed in the standard, but I haven’t caught a native speaker using them instead of the backformed singulars (without -n), and they sound distinctly quaint to me. Conversely, the singular-collective Haar “hair” is receding into poetry.

  25. Lars (the original one) says

    OBDanish: et par bukser / briller and mit hår, but en saks.

  26. I learned to call the instrument for describing circles “compass” in the 1950s in NY, but John Donne 400 years ago called it “twin compasses” in Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.

    If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two;
    Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if the other do.

  27. *Valediction, Forbidding Mourning.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Huh, I wrote striked in 2007. Weird. Must have been one of those late-night comments where I half-edited strikes

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    Strike struck struck adj. stricken/struck
    streichen strich gestrichen
    stroke stroked stroked
    streicheln streichelte gestreichelt
    Easy mistake, choose the weak verb ending ☺

  30. John Cowan says
  31. There’s a whole section about the power of “incorrect” verb forms in letters to the War Department in The Grammarians.

  32. David Marjanović says

    In 2007 I didn’t yet know the usage of a couple for “exactly two identical things that don’t form any kind of natural pair”. That’s neither ein paar (“a few”) nor ein Paar (“a pair”), but zwei in German.

  33. John Cowan says

    exactly two identical things that don’t form any kind of natural pair

    What is the German for ‘two forces opposite in direction but not collinear’ (thus inducing a torque in a rigid body)? That is a couple in physicist’s English. It’s an interesting special case, because it should be equal to no force at all, but because of the torque it isn’t.

  34. David Marjanović says

    I didn’t know, but the Wikipedia article for couple (mechanics) leads to Kräftepaar or Kraftpaar. I find nothing odd about calling two equal forces opposite in direction a pair.

  35. Trond Engen says

    Norwegian kraftpar. We got everything mechanical from German.

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