Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at expressions with the word shoe.
According to the New York Times, Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who thrust himself into folk-hero-hood (and incarceration) by hurling a pair of shoes (and several choice epithets) at President Bush is due to face a judge today. The Times states that he faces the possibility of a number of years in prison, although it is unclear to me whether the length of the sentence is dictated by the putative danger posed by projectile loafers or the perceived insult of throwing shoes.
The Times also states that “Throwing a shoe at a person is considered a particularly severe insult and a sign of disrespect in the Arab world”, and while I have no reason to doubt this, I cannot help but notice that we do not have the same fraught relationship with footwear here, at least not where I grew up. I have never found that shoes had any particular cultural resonance, save for that I realize that some people choose to not wear them indoors.
When I looked through the OED I discovered that there are a great number of expressions having to do with shoes, but they seem to me to not all fall into one particular category. They range from the negative to the positive to the inexplicable.
Old shoe refers to something worthless or useless, and to tread her shoe awry apparently describes a woman’s lapse from virtue. The shoe is on the other foot is still a common enough expression, but how many of us still use the delightful go meddle with thy old shoes (mind your own business)? Similarly, I knew the expression to win one’s spurs, but had no idea that it was common in the 15th century to win one’s shoes, which meant the same thing.
The OED also mentions that to cast or fling an old shoe after a person was a means of bringing good luck, at a wedding or some such event, an occurrence that I do not believe I have ever seen at a wedding. Basil Hargrave, in his book Origins and Meanings of Popular Phrases and Names, says that this custom comes from an older Jewish wedding formality, wherein the groom strikes the bride with a shoe as a means of exhibiting his supremacy and her obedience.
I am certain that there is some quotidian thing that we find insulting, or a sign of disrespect, which in the Arab world might be thought of as innocuous, but I cannot think of what it might be. But I’ve got shoe-words on my mind now, and so it is easy enough for me to not scoff at the pejorative attributions that they give to things that I find harmless – I’m reminded of our strange English word ultracrepidation, which is defined as “the action or fact of criticizing ignorantly”. It comes from the Latin ultra crepidam (a phrase purportedly taken from the response of the ancient Greek painter Apelles to the shoemaker who dared to criticize his work), which means “beyond the sole”.