The language of sneakers


Adidas or Reeboks. Pumas or Jordans. Keds or Vans. Whatever kind you wear, they all have one thing in common. They’re called sneakers.

Or are they? Just as there are innumerable sneaker brands and styles, there are a plethora of names for that casual, rubber-soled shoe. Here we take a look at some of them from across the United States and around the globe.

“Sneaker” or “tennis shoe”?

Sneaker and tennis shoe are neck and neck for most popular term in the U.S. According to the Harvard Dialect Survey, 45.5% of Americans say sneaker while 41.34% say tennis shoe.

The use of sneaker, says the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), is widespread but somewhat more frequent in the Northeast and North Central states. Meanwhile, tennis shoe is less frequent in the Northeast.

While sneaker is slightly more popular than tennis shoe, the latter is about eight years older. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from Rudyard Kipling’s 1887 short story, “The Bisara of Pooree“: “It was his wizenedness and worthlessness that made him fall so hopelessly in love with Miss Hollis, who was good and sweet, and five-foot-seven in her tennis-shoes.”

Some sneaky (and tennie) variations

While sneaker and tennis shoe dominate U.S. vernacular, you might hear some variations thereof.

In the Northeast, someone might say sneaks for sneakers. In western Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region, tennis shoes might be called tenners. Scattered throughout the country but chiefly in the western Great Lakes, Iowa, and the West (but not the Northwest), you might get tennie, while in the Northwest the preferred term seems to be tennie-runner. In the Southern region, you might hear tennie-pump, tennies, or simply tennis.

More U.S. sneaker slang

Regional variations don’t stop at these alterations. Back in the day, you might have heard ball shoe in the South Midland states. Going for a run in southern Louisiana? You’ll need your decks, short for the sneaker-esque deck shoe. In Montana, Ohio, and Mississippi, your tennies might be known as quick starts while in the Gulf States and South Carolina, you might take a walk in your easy walkers.

Highs and lows

Sneakers are referred to by their style. Low-top meaning any low-topped shoe or boot originated in 1892, says the OED, and came to refer specifically to sneakers in the late 1980s. As for high-top, the OED’s first mention is from 1895, again meaning a regular shoe or boot, while the sneaker meaning is from 1985.

So that’s how sneaker slang runs in the U.S. How about across the pond?

Running shoes, training shoes, and runners

The oldest term for a rubber-soled athletic shoe in British English seems to be running shoe, which originated around 1666, says the OED. (According to the Harvard Dialect Survey, about 1.42% of Americans refer to their Nikes as such.) Almost 200 years later, training shoe came about, and another 130 years later, the shortened trainer, which is also used in Glasgow, Scotland, says lexicographer Susie Dent in her book How to Talk Like a Local: From Cockney to Geordie, a national companion. The Australian English runner is from 1970.


First appearing in print in 1885, according to the OED, the now genericized brand name was suggested in 1876 by “an energetic sales representative” of the Liverpool Rubber Company “for the new canvas rubber shoes or sand shoes then becoming fashionable for wear on seaside beaches.” The shoes’ rubber band reminded the sales rep of the Plimsoll Line, which marks “the limit of safety to which merchant ships can be loaded.” Similarly, the shoes’ own “water-band” marked how far they could be immersed in water and still remain “water-tight.”

Variations include plimmies and plimsoles, influenced by sole, the underside of a shoe or foot, and used by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake: “Their blankets and materny mufflers and plimsoles.”

For even more on plimsolls and sneaker speak, check out this great post from Fritinancy.

Pump(s) up the jam

Like Dent says, the word pump has been used to describe a variety of shoes since 1555, including a “close-fitting, low-heeled shoe,” slippers, and a shoe for acrobats and dancers. It seems to be around 1897, says the OED, that pumps also referred to sneakers. From the Sears, Roebuck catalog: “Men’s gymnasium shoes… Men’s low cut canvas pumps, canvas sole, [etc.].” Now pump is a regional term, which, says Dent, “dominates the North and Midlands.”

Track shoes and daps

About a decade after pump came track-shoe, followed in 1924 by dap, which might come from the verb sense of the same word meaning to dip lightly, or to skip or bounce.

Sannies, gutties, and tackies (oh my)

According to Dent, sandshoes or sannies have been around since the mid-19th century, and are standard terms in Scotland as well as “the North-East as far south as Hull.”

Gutties is another sneaker saying from Scotland. According to the Herald Scotland, guttie comes from gutta-percha, “a rubbery substance derived from the latex” of certain tropical trees, and “used as an electrical insulator, as a waterproofing compound, and in golf balls” (A gutta or gutty is a golf ball made of such material.) Gutta-percha is Malay in origin, where getah means “sap” and perca, “strip of cloth.”

Tackies is said in South Africa, but the word is “apparently not Afrikaans,” says the OED. It might come from tacky meaning slight sticky or gummy to the touch.

What are you wearing? Mutton dummy.

The curious and wonderful mutton dummy is a Northern Irish term. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, it might have originated in the 1930s, “possibly from mutton cloth, ‘a type of cotton cloth used to wrap meat’ (from the resemblance to the material from which the shoes are made),” and dummy, “with reference to the lack of noise they make.”

Puss boot is from Jamaican English, and probably represents “a humorous folk reference to the soft tread of a person in such shoes,” says the OED.

What do you call sneakers?



The Kentucky Derby: It’s All About the Hats



Some would have you believe the Kentucky Derby is about horse-racing, but we know it’s really about the hats.

How would you describe one who is wearing a hat? You could say hat-wearing, or you could say galericulate, which means having a little galea, which is Latin for something helmet-shaped.

If you remove your hat to show respect, you’re practicing hat-honor. The term was “used by the early Friends or Quakers, who refused to pay this token of respect.” Along those same lines, to be unbonneted means to be without a bonnet but also “making no obeisance” or gesture of deference or honor.

Need to buy a hat? Visit a milliner, one who “makes, trims, designs, or sells hats.” The word probably comes from the city Milan, once “the source of goods such as bonnets and lace.” Or frequent a haberdasher, a seller of hats, men’s furnishings, or “sewing notions and small wares.” The word haberdasher may come from the Anglo-Norman hapertas, “petty wares.”

Now to the starting line: which came first, derby the hat or derby the race?  The race did, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The annual horse race was founded in 1780 by the 12th Earl of Derby. The hat may have been named for the race “where this type of hat was worn.” The derby is also known as a bowler, named for the hat’s shape. Similar is the billycock, perhaps an alteration of bullycocked, “cocked in the fashion of a swashbuckler.”

Picture-hats are the type favored at the Run for the Roses. Wide-brimmed and elaborately decorated, picture-hats were originally “supposed to be made in imitation of one shown in some striking portrait,” hence the name. They were also known a gainsborough hats as these “striking portraits” were often done by English painter Thomas Gainsborough.

More hats

More hats

Kiss-me-quick! A command, yes, but also “a small becoming bonnet fashionable about the middle of the nineteenth century,” or “a lady’s cap with ribbons that tied under the chin on one side with ‘kissing-strings’.” Kiss-me-quick was also “a name given to various things of a presumably coquettish or attractive nature.” Another kind of bonnet, the bongrace, was also a “shade formerly worn by women on the front of a bonnet to protect the complexion from the sun.”

The cloche, a favorite among flappers, is a “close-fitting woman’s hat with a bell-like shape.” Cloche comes from an Old French word meaning “bell,” and originally referred to a bell-shaped cover “used chiefly to protect plants from frost.” The pillbox, popularized by Jackie Kennedy, is pillbox-shaped with its “upright sides and a flat crown.” And we can only guess that the porkpie hat looks like a porkpie.

The Dolly Varden, large and “overloaded with flowers,” is named for a character “known for her colorful costume in the novel Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.” Dolly Varden also refers to “a woman’s gown of gay-flowered material,” as well as “a colorfully spotted trout.” The hipster-topping fedora comes from a 19th century French play titled. “Fédora,” in which “the heroine, Fédora Romanoff, wore a center-creased, soft brimmed hat.”

The shady sombrero comes from the Spanish sombrar, “to shade,” while the fascinator, a woman’s “head decorator”, both “delicate” and “often frivolous,” is designed to fascinate. The fascinator made headlines in 2011 with its often fabulous appearance at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The word fascinate ultimately comes from the Latin fascinum, “an evil spell.”

That’s just the tip of the hat iceberg. For even more kinds of hats, caps, and hoods, check out these lists, Headgear and Names of Hats. Now off to the races!

[Photo: “derby044,” CC BY 2.0 by Lee Burchfield]
[Photo: “More Hats,” CC BY 2.0 by John Athayde]
[Photo: “Fedora Hat,” CC BY 2.0 by Nono Fara]

Words in Fashion

Sidewalk-Catwalk: Carmen Marc Valvo design

It’s Fashion Week in New York! To celebrate, we’re showcasing some of our classic collections – the most stylish and sartorial of our lists.

First up on the catwalk, in honor of the haberdasher, “a dealer in small articles of dress and in ribbons, trimmings, thread, pins, needles, etc.; a dealer in hats; a hatter,” we have the Haberdashery and The Worshipful Company of Haberdashers.

Next, we have some Sartorial Splendor (sartorial means “of or relating to the quality of dress” and comes from sartor, the Latin word for “tailor”); some clothing styles and subcultures; and some fashion elegance, oddities, styles, and cool garments.

We have apparel portmanteaus and other silly words (like jeggings, mandals, and skorts); eponymous fabrics and articles of clothing; and even more fabrics and fabrications.

Hats Off! to some hats (we’ll take a fascinator, a tuque, and a pork pie in blue), some headgear (don’t forget your toupee, scrunchie, or tinfoil), and kerchiefs, for the head or hand.  Plus, oh my God, shoes: shoe types, shoes parts, and color words for shoes.

You know the saying: no shirt, no service. So put on these T-shirt animals, these wordy T-shirts worn by Wordniks, or these imaginary tees. While you’re at it put on something below the belt as well.

Feeling dressy? Try one of these dresses, or some ties and neckwear. Chilly? Put on one of these many coats and jackets. And no outfit would be complete without the perfect bag and piece of jewelry. But whatever you do, don’t commit a fashion faux pas.

For even more voguish verbiage, keep up with our Fashion Week words and lists of the day via Facebook and Twitter.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Nekenasoa]



Today’s word of the day is greatcoat, a heavy outer garment you wear outside of all of your other clothes. It is approximately the same thing as an overcoat (which can be of any weight) or a topcoat (which is lightweight) and related to a surcoat (which is loose).

In 1842 Penny Magazine of London quoted this description of a certain kind of greatcoat in Ireland in 1581:

With jackets long and large,
Which shroud simplicity:
Though spiteful darts which they do bear
Import iniquity.
Their skirts be very strange,
Not reaching past the thigh;
With plaits on plaits they plaited are,
As thick as plaits may lie.
Whose sleeves hang trailing down
Almost unto the shoe;
And with a mantle commonly
The Irish kerne do go.
Now some amongst the rest
Do use another weed:
A coat, I mean, of strange device,
Which fancy first did breed.
His skirts be very short,
With plaits set thick about.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Someday maybe I’ll write another (or my first?) thoughtful post, full of original ideas explicated at length. But for now… more bookshelves! Presenting… the Elastico, by Arianna Vivenzio. Not suitable for the OED, but a shelf’s worth of Aubrey/Maturin novels would probably look swell.

Sadly, this appears to be a design study (go here and click on ‘projects,’ then ‘furniture’), and not for sale. Though you could probably make your own out of a truck’s fan belt.

Many thanks to Nancy for the link.