If the shoe doesn’t fit: getting the etymology right

Mosaic shoeBen Zimmer’s latest On Language column in the New York Times (Beach-Blanket Lingo, 5 August 2010) examines the terms used by coastal resort residents (from-heres) to describe summer visitors (come-heres). One term used for the latter is shoobies, explained thus by John T. Cunningham, writing in 1958:

day-trippers from Philly took advantage of the $1 round-trip fare to make excursions to the shore, especially on Sundays. That day, week in and week out, found swaying Atlantic City-bound coaches teeming with Philadelphia families, laden with their ‘shoe box lunches’.

This got me thinking about another shoe-related term. A few years ago, when I was fretting about a translation project I’d bid for, a friend reassured me I’d be a “shoe-in”. I’d never heard the phrase before, and found it puzzling.

It brought to mind Cinderella easing her dainty foot into that delicate glass slipper.  The only problem being that I take an Italian size 41. So more like the ugly sisters trying to force those fragile shoes to fit their feet. Or, if you read the gorier versions of the fairy-tale, chopping off their heels or big toes to force the foot to fit the shoe. An image that did not auger well for that translation project.

Anyway, it seems “shoe-in” isn’t the correct term. The phrase is “shoo-in”. Here’s an explanation from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Shoo-in ‘easy winner (especially in politics)’ (1939) was originally a horse that wins a race by pre-arrangement (1928; the verb phrase shoo in in this sense is from 1908).

And here’s one from The Word Detective, who has been writing about Words and Language in a Humorous Vein on the web since 1995:

‘Shoo in’, as it is properly spelled, was originally a racetrack term, and was (and still is) applied to a horse expected to easily win a race, and, by extension, to any contestant expected to win an easy victory. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term in print dates back to 1928, and the original sense of the term was not as innocent as you’d think. A ‘shoo in’ was originally a horse that was expected to win a race, not by virtue of its speed or endurance, but because the race was fixed. The sardonic ‘subtext’ of the original usage, now lost, was that the designated horse would win even if it were so lackadaisical in its performance that it simply wandered somehow up to the finish line and had to be ‘shooed in’ to victory.

So, looks like my feet need fear nothing more violent than the footfile wielded by the podiatrist at Shuropody.

Mosaic shoe courtesy of Chris Zonta.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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