Something’s afoot: investigating the names for shoes
Whether you’re a shoe aficionado or somebody who regards footwear as merely something to help avoid standing on nails, you might be interested in the etymological backgrounds to the names of some common varieties of shoe. We’ve taken five of them, and traced their – perhaps surprising – linguistic histories…
You probably know that there are at least two common uses of the word clog: the noun ‘a shoe with a thick wooden sole’ and the verb ‘to block or become blocked’, or ‘to fill up or crowd’. What you might not realize is that these definitions come from the same root: a Middle English word meaning a block of wood.
While the ultimate origin of clog is not known, two elements of this original sense branched out separately to give the two modern senses. It led to the shoe, because of its wooden sole (and clog may originally have referred solely (!) to the sole). The verb stems from a block of wood being attached to the leg or neck of a person or animal, to impede motion or prevent escape. The earliest sense of the verb clog means to fasten one of these clogs to a person or animal, and this later transferred to the broader sense of ‘impede’, and then to clog’s current meaning.
Speaking of terms for shoes which seem to have unrelated homonyms, what connects the brogue which is ‘a strong outdoor shoe with ornamental perforated patterns in the leather’ or ‘a rough shoe of untanned leather’, and the brogue which is ‘a marked accent, especially Irish or Scottish, when speaking English’?
I had fondly imagined that the two might be linked by the dual meanings of tongue (in the mouth and in the shoe), but a possible theory is a little more prosaic. The rough shoe of tanned leather was once chiefly worn in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, and it has been suggested that brogue (the accent) arose in the 18th century with an original sense ‘the speech of those who wear brogues’.
You might have wondered what the connection was between the varieties of mule; what (that is) the backless woman’s shoe could have to do with the offspring of a donkey and a horse. Well, etymologically at least, the answer is ‘nothing’. The latter comes from the Latin mūlus (referring to the animal), while the former is from the Latin mulleī (red high-soled shoes worn by patricians). In English, the earliest use of mule with this etymological root (in the 14th century, according to current Oxford English Dictionary research) referred to a chilblain, especially one on the heel; only from the mid-16th century did mule refer to a slipper or shoe.
I had assumed that the sandal was so-named because it was made of sandalwood (which is also known as sandal). Again, I have jumped to conclusions: the two words actually have different etymological roots. Sandalwood (a ‘tree which yields fragrant timber and oil’, and also used of that timber and oil) comes from the medieval Latin sandalum, and ultimately from Sanskrit čandana. On the other hand, the sandal you’re probably more familiar with – the ones on your feet that you’re often advised not to combine with socks – comes via Latin from the Greek sandalion, the diminutive of sandalon meaning ‘wooden shoe’.
Stiletto refers to ‘a woman’s shoe with a thin, high tapering heel’, or specifically to the heel in question (also known as a stiletto heel). The word stiletto is Italian and is the diminutive of stilo (dagger), thus stiletto literally means ‘a small dagger’ – a sense that fans of weaponry will still be familiar with. The association between the heel and the dagger is self-evident, and arose in the early 20th century. Centuries earlier, stiletto was occasionally used to designate a pointed beard – a sense found in the work of the 17th-century playwright John Ford.