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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 3 - Starting at the Bottom

More words from the world of clothing; this time: footwear. Why is "boot" both a noun and a verb? And why are "boots" the same thing as "galoshes"? Learn about the phrases and word origins of the things we wear on our feet.


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It is often said that a building is only as sturdy as its foundation; can the same be said of a person? When we get dressed, often the last thing to be donned is the footwear, but those items of clothing that are down towards the floor are quite important: just try getting through a day with shoes that pinch or pantyhose that bind. Let us look at the garments that provide the base of our outfits and learn how their names originated. We will also consider alternative ways of using words about footwear (clichés of the shoe, so to speak).

Why did our ancestors call snobs "blue stockings"? The term dates back to the 1400s and the Italian intellectual discussion group Della Calza. Composed of both men and women, the society moved from Italy to France (where it was called Bas Bleu) and then to England, by 1780. There, one of the members, Mrs. Montague, decided to wear blue stockings when she attended the meetings, in whatever country she was in at the time. The exclusive group of elite individuals found the behavior to be advantageous (it showed off who they were, perhaps?) and soon all the members were seen wearing the unusual apparel. To the outside world, they were simply snobs and were easily recognizable by the color of their stockings. The group dissolved in 1840, but the phrase was maintained for a period of time (a member of the Blue Stocking Society is one whose "mind is in [his/her] feet") (Mordock & Korach, p. 167). So if you find a reference to one of your ancestors being a "blue stocking," do not presume that it was a compliment!

In the 1500s, the word "freebooter" slipped into British English. Coming from the words vrij (Dutch for "free") and buit (Dutch for boot), the term meant "pirate" - adventurers who probably had no affiliation to any one country over another (much as the earlier "free lance" was a soldier who had no particular allegiance). The French and Spanish then adopted the word and it became filibustier and filibustero, respectively. By the time we (in America) got it, it became filibuster, and was used to describe the types of adventurers who held people captive by talking to them about their various engagements, whether the listeners cared or not (most of us know some people like that. . . . I do believe my parents fit in that category after they returned from a trip and invited the neighbors in to view their vacation slides). Anyway, from this type of person to the one who hogs the floor in the legislature, the leap is really not so extreme (Feldman, p. 110). Note, though, how the form of the word has changed: "to filibuster" (using it as a verb) means to carry on a lengthy monologue in order to postpone the planned action, while "a filibuster" had been a person. Do we call the person who is "filibustering" a "filibuster" or a "filibusterer"? I'll let you figure that one out. Regardless, most just wish to "give him the boot." (Perhaps some of those blue stockings were considered freebooters as well.)

While writing this, I needed to re-boot my computer a few times (nothing serious, just having interruptions in the process). It naturally caused me to wonder why a piece of footwear would be used as a verb to refer to the process of restarting my machine. Of course, using the term "boot" as a verb is not new; it dates back many centuries. The original phrase, however, was "to boot up," as in "to put on one's boots and be ready for the task at hand." One suggestion is that "to boot up" implies that the person thus readying him/herself is restarting in order to take action (starting the new day or, for those times when we come home and get comfortable by taking off our shoes/boots, then must don them again to take out the garbage, we are "booting up" or "rebooting"). So, whether relating to personal attire or the computer, booting and rebooting are simply part of an involved lifestyle (Garrison, p. 9).

Today, it is likely that very few young folks have no idea what a "bootstrap" is, yet their parents (or, more believably, their grandparents) might advise them to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps." Instead of proceeding to do so, today's youngsters are more likely to whip out their Blackberries to Google "bootstrap." The age of this term can only be guessed at, and the existence of the word as a single entity (as opposed to boot and strap) is known only within the last 400 years or so. I remember my first (and last) pair of cowboy boots: each side had a little loop (the straps). I'd use them to yank the footwear on and found them quite handy, but did not realize that those loops were almost as old as boots themselves. On the larger boots (ca. 1600s), with huge cuffs that covered the knees, the straps were concealed inside the boot, but were easily reached with the boot-hook, which would aid the wearer in getting the foot firmly inside the large limb covering. Pulling up on the bootstraps, while shoving down with the foot, unless the boot is woefully too small, usually results in success. Likewise, one who is told to pull him/herself up by the bootstraps is given the admonition to rise above the current circumstances to reach success in life (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, pp. 51-53).

The phrase "my heart dropped" is really incomplete; the earlier term "to have one's heart in one's shoes" means that the person is experiencing extreme fear or anxiety. Before that, it was declared that the "heart dropped into one's toe" (at least keeping the heart within the confines of the body). Other variations took the heart downward into the "heel, . . . hose, . . . [and] boots." It all means the same thing, and anyone who had felt that downward drag on his/her guts knows exactly what it feels like (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 60).

Perhaps the cause of such a feeling would be considered a "vamp" - a woman with ulterior motives. However, this has no connection to the word "revamping"; the woman called a "vamp" takes her label from vampire (certainly a popular topic for films in this year), while the other form of the same word is taken from footwear, referring to the part of the shoe that covers the instep and, in some cases, extends over the toes. As a noun, vamp is derived from the French avant (meaning "before") and pie (meaning "foot") - hence, that part of the shoe that is on the "before" part of the "foot." When the piece must be repaired, the shoe is then "revamped." The strange thing is that this verb is rather redundant in that the word vamp means "to refurbish"; re, of course, is a prefix meaning "again," so something that is "revamped" is "re-refurbished" (now, that's really getting your wear out of something). Originally it was just shoes that were "revamped" (and many of them probably were re-refurbished, over and over), but now we find ourselves revamping any number of things (American Heritage, p. 239).

My mother's term for snow and rain boots sticks in my mind forever: "galoshes"; but it hasn't rolled off my tongue since I moved out on my own. How did I know that she was merely repeating a word that was probably once used by my French forebears? Early shoes were made of fabrics, at least, those worn by the higher classes in France, and to protect them, when one wished to venture out in inclement weather, galoches were donned. These were more like sandals and were made of wood, used to protect the cloth sole of the royal wearer's slipper. Over time, both the word and the overshoe went through a metamorphosis and soon the word "galoshes" was used to describe the rubber boots that, if you can get your kids to wear them, protect everything from slippers to sneakers (Morris & Morris, pp. 235- 236).

I found an early "zipper repair" kit that my mother had among her sewing supplies. I cannot imagine trying to repair the zipper as the directions dictate, but, then, my zippers are mostly made of a plastic sort of material and when they get damaged, there is not much one can do to repair them. Such was not always the case. Zippers first found their way into our wardrobes by being part of the overshoes (those galoshes, just discussed) manufactured by B. F. Goodrich (yup, the tire people). And it was Goodrich who christened them "zipper" and trademarked the name. Why "zipper"? Well, the word was not new to the apparatus; people and things had been known to "zip" about at least since 1850. With everything from bullets to children zipping around our ancestors' lives, it seems only fitting that the thing that helps people get dressed quickly be called by that same name (Feldman, p. 129, per William Debuvitz).

As long as we're discussing protective gear, let us look at "spats." They look so smart on a well-dressed man; hard to believe his whole goal in wearing them is to keep from being "spattered." These were a shortened form of spatterdash, a long gaiter used to protect the trouser legs from being splashed with mud and debris (and our ancestors had a lot of debris in their streets). "Spats," then are the shortened word for the shorter protection - a short gaiter to protect just the bottom portion of the trousers, by the ankle (Barnhart, p. 1041). Note: the word "gaiter" comes from the French guĂȘtre and dates to 1775 as meaning a "covering for the ankle and lower leg" (p. 418).

Now that we have zipped through the various words for shoes and other clothing items worn on the lower part of the lower extremities, can we get any lower? Would we want to? I am grateful that my ancestors invented things that allow us to wade through the mire, such as galoshes and boots, but wish that these would help me get past some of the muck I have to slog through to find the right record for the right ancestor. But, even when my heart has dropped into my boots from the disappointment, I shall pull myself up by the bootstraps, reboot the computer (again), and revamp my research process, ready to be spattered, yet again, when I find myself traipsing down a wrong road. Let us not be freebooters in our discussions of our genealogy but, rather, be blue stockings in the world of family historians! Hey, if the shoe fits . . .


American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Feldman, David. Who Put the Butter in Butterfly? . . . and Other Fearless Investigations into our Illogical Language. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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