Week of April 18, 2020

Don’t Gain the World But Lose your Sole


“Waiting for the other shoe to drop” means anticipating a seemingly inevitable event. In early New York City tenements, the bedrooms of the units were stacked vertically in the building, above and below each other. You could often hear your neighbor upstairs drop a shoe on the floor after taking it off, when you knew the second shoe was coming soon.


The original “Goody Two-Shoes” was named Margery Meanwell and was the hero of the 1765 children’s book “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.” After misfortune leaves her father dead and young Margery destitute, she wears only one shoe until a generous man buys her a second, and Margery is overjoyed. She grows up to be a schoolteacher, marries a rich widower, and helps the poor with her new wealth. Notably, the term “Goody two-shoes” appeared in a poem written about 70 years earlier, and “Goody” at that time was short for “Goodwife,” the polite way to address poor married women. The way we use the term “Goody two-shoes” today, however, is more likely based on the later 19th century phrase “goody goody” which had the more negative connotations of obnoxious superficial do-goodery.


Though physically impossible no matter what your strength, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is a popular idiom for personal initiative. The first reference to a bootstrap lift came when inventor Nimrod Murphree announced that he had “discovered perpetual motion” to a Nashville newspaper. Another paper mocked his claim, writing: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland River, or a barnyard fence, by the straps of his boots.” Also on this theme of impossible-lifts-from-a-low-place, one story about fictional German yarn-spinner Baron Munchausen has him lifting himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by pulling upwards on his own hair. Later, it seems that author James Joyce was one of the first to use the bootstrap reference in the modern sense in 1922, and the impossible-yet-familiar footwear act has been referenced ever since.


The idiom “the shoe is on the other foot” actually began as “the boot is on the other leg,” but had the same idea. The shoe/boot is uncomfortable on the wrong foot/leg, meaning the positions between two people or circumstances were reversed.


Leggings worn by sailors and marines during the Spanish-American War came to be known as boots, a term which also referred to recruits into those armed forces. Hence, the place where they were trained was called “boot camp.”


“Gums” used to be a term for rubber-soled shoes, so a plainclothes detective, who often wore this type of quiet, stealthy shoe, became known as a “gumshoe.”


To “die with your boots on” means dying while being vigorous and engaged in activity (including fighting) to the very end.