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

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