Word origin: Sabotage: Best foot forward

Word origin: SABOTAGE Best foot forward

This French word, adopted into the English language in the early 20th century, has a surprising link to footwear.

At the beginning of our story, we find the Persian word ciabat. This influential word for shoe inspired the Spanish word zapata, the Italian ciabatta, the Arabic sabbat and the French word sabot.

The original 13th century sabot was a wooden shoe. Walking in these shoes was unavoidably noisy, which led to the word saboter, a word that literally means “walk noisily”. Saboter later took on a sense of bungling or foolish behaviour, and evolved into saboteur. The word sabotage was used in French in a variety of ‘bungling’ senses. If someone lacking musical skill played your favourite song badly on the piano, you might have described them as sabotaging it, for example.

Later, in both French and English, sabotage was used to describe the act of a worker “deliberately and maliciously destroying property” in the course of a labour dispute. There’s a story that this word was used because workers in France ruined machinery by throwing shoes into them, but this is a myth.

“Sabotage means giving back to the bosses what they give back to us. Sabotage consists of going slow with the process of production when the bosses go slow with the same process in regard to wages.”
Arturo Giovannitti

We now use the word sabotage more broadly to refer to anything being deliberately damaged or obstructed.

Posted in Etymology