By some accounts, the average person owns 19 pairs of shoes. But it’s not just our closets that are overflowing with sneakers, loafers, pumps, and wedges. It’s also our vocabulary. Here are 10 words hiding a secret, etymological shoe obsession.
In Middle English, if you wanted to say something was “wearing shoes,” you would say it was shod. Shod simply means “shoed.” This old past participle form of the verb to shoe has largely been worn out in the lexicon, but it does survive as a compound in some familiar adjectives, like slipshod. Slipshod literally means “wearing slippers.” Slippers are loose-fitting, which is how slipshod eventually came to describe something “sloppy” and “careless.”
When horseshoes are roughshod, the nails aren’t yet worn down. This helps keep the horse from slipping, but it also does a number on the terrain, hence the domineering disregard associated with the idiom to ride roughshod.
Someone who rides roughshod over someone else’s ideas or feelings certainly isn’t a very scrupulous fellow. Scruples, which niggle one’s conscience, derive from the Latin scrupulus, literally a “small pebble.” The famed Roman orator and statesman Cicero used scrupulus as a metaphor for a “cause of anxiety”—something that worries you, like a little stone stuck in your shoe.
Saboteurs aren’t deterred by any rocks in their footwear. Instead, they deliberately ruin—or sabotage—something with their boots. Way back when, in French, a sabot was a “wooden boot,” which inspired saboter, “to make noise with sabots.” Such clomping was employed as a metaphor for malicious destruction. Sabotage concerned a very specific destruction when English adopted the word in the 1910s: workmen destroying company property while on strike.
Italians love their shoes and Italians love their food. Fortunately, they’ve found a way to bring those two loves together. Ciabatta literally means “slipper,” whose shape, as the story goes, lent its name to the Italian bread. The word ciabatta is related to Spanish for “shoe,” zapato, from the same root that gave French the sabot in sabotage.
The Italians don’t just eat their slippers. They also eat their trousers. While calzones can feature all sort of tasty fillings, etymologically the dish is stuffed with calzoni, “drawers” or “hose,” as the folded dough resembles folded clothing. The Italian calzoni is fresh out of the oven of calceus, the Latin for “shoe.” Discalceate, also from calceus, is a very fancy way of saying “take off your shoes.”
One would think causeway, like the famed Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, is a simple compound of cause and way. But the word actually joins causey and way. Causey is an obsolete word for “embankment” and might trek back to the Latin calciare, “to tread” or “stamp with the heels.” This verb is related to that same calceus, “shoe,” a word further grounded in calx, “heel.” A variant of Latin’s calx may also yield caligula, “little boot,” which became the nickname of the Roman emperor Caligula, reputed to have accompanied his father in war as a toddler, dressed in a military uniform fitted for his small size, including the boots.
Some think that this term for a distinctive, Celtic accent is named for “the speech of one who wears brogues,” or shoes. Brogue is from the Old Irish broce, “shoe,” from the same ancient root that gives English the word breeches.
Today, when we revamp something, we “renovate” and “improve” it. But if you revamped something before the early 1800s, you were providing a shoe with a new vamp. A vamp makes up the top part of shoe between the toe and heel. The word originally meant “stocking” or “sock” in Middle English, from the French avanpié, “the front (avant) part of the foot (pié).” Musicians will vamp when they are improvising, “patching together” a part on the spot much like a cobbler revamped an old, worn-down shoe.
Shoemakers will also be familiar with welt. Most of us probably think of welt as a swollen mark on the flesh caused by a lash or blow. But going back into 1400s, welts were strips of leather sewn above the sole of a shoe. Such strips were thus likened to the raised, ridge-like welts left on the skin. Ill-fitting shoes can cause blisters, but welterweight boxers cause welts, one theory for their name.