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Today’s “French English” word is “sabotage.” Everyone, I’m sure, knows what sabotage means: as a verb, it means to deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct something; as a noun, it’s the act of doing that. But where does the word come from? As it turns out, “sabotage” has a direct relation to wooden shoes. “Wooden shoes?” you ask. Why, yes. Here’s how …

Native Girls, Marken Island, Holland (c. 1905)

We generally associate wooden shoes with the Dutch, of course, who are often stereotypically depicted wearing them while picking tulips in front of their windmills. They weren’t the only people, however, who traditionally wore these clunky things; in fact, they were common among peasants all over Europe, including France, where they were called “sabots.” Eventually, sabot also became a slang term for the poor country folk who, during France’s Industrial Revolution, were brought into the cities to work in the factories when city dwellers went on strike. The verb “saboter” had originally been used in French to mean “to knock or tap with the foot” or “to walk noisily,” from the sound the wooden shoes would make on cobblestones, but with the arrival of these sabots in the factories, the word took on a new meaning. Because the sabot-wearing peasants weren’t familiar with the modern machinery, saboter became slang for “to bungle a job” and “sabotage” became the slang term for their poor quality work. Every strike has its end, though, and the city-dwelling workforce eventually returned to the factories. But they’d apparently learned a new bargaining tactic from the sabotskeeping their jobs by working, but making their demands heard by doing it as inefficiently and shoddily as possible. And that’s how sabotage came to mean something more sinister than just clunky work done by workers in clunky shoes. (Interestingly, in English we still use a word to describe poorly done work that evokes this same image: “slipshod,” which literally means “wearing slippers or loose shoes.” This sense of the word also dates from the 19th Century.)

wooden shoe symbol used by anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

There’s another account of the etymology of sabotage that’s certainly the most popular one on the Internet. It posits that the word comes from the practice of disgruntled workers causing work stoppages by throwing their wooden shoes into the looms of 15th-century Dutch textile mills … or into the machinery of 19th-century French factories. Perhaps this did happen from time to time, but many historians and etymologists reject the theory for a variety of reasons. Personally, it does seem unlikely that a poor peasant would throw his shoes into a machine instead of finding a more subtle and less incriminating way to break it. Nevertheless, it is true that anarchists and radical labor unions adopted the sabot as one of their symbols, perhaps drawing on the popular myth of the machine of industry being ground to a halt by the simple wooden shoe of an oppressed worker.

Sabotage” entered the English lexicon in 1910, probably in connection with the French railway strike of that year. During the strike, railway workers walked off the job after the government refused to respond to their demands. After the government drafted the strikers into the French army and ordered them back to the railroads, they “sabotaged” the system by bungling everything: sidetracking perishable goods so that they spoiled in the railcars or rerouting trains to the wrong destinations. Incidentally, their sabotage also involved yet another meaning of the word sabot: the iron devices placed on the rails that act as a kind of brake to slow trains as they approach a descent. Apparently, some railway strikers removed or loosened these sabots, causing trains to derail. This linguistic connection is coincidental, though; while it might help explain the entry of sabotage into our language, it doesn’t explain the etymology of the French word which, by 1910, had had the meaning of “monkeywrenching” for quite some time.

“sabot de voie”

So, after all of that, you’re probably wondering where Italian bread comes into the picture? Well, I’m taking us off on a tangent with this, but it’s still interesting. The French word sabot comes from the Old French çabot, which itself is a combination of the Old French savate and bot (a masculine variant of botte, meaning “boot”). Savate comes from the Old Provençal sabata, by way of the Turkish zabata, which itself derives from the Arabic sabbat (meaning “sandal”). This is also the origin of the Spanish word for shoe, zapato, and the Italian word for a slipper … ciabatta which, as you all well know, is also a kind of Italian flatbread that makes a mighty tasty sandwich.

ciabatta with black olives © Doctor Cosmos

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

See, “sabotage” (Online Etymology Dictionary), “sabotage” (Wikipedia), “sabot” (Wiktionary).

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9 thoughts on “Labor Disputes, Wooden Shoes, and Italian Bread

    • Thanks so much for the compliment! This was a really fun one to write. We’re off to Oxford and London tomorrow, but back in Paris for the 4th and an Independence Day themed party with our French friends: bring something “American” and come dressed like an “American.” That should make for good blog material next week!

      • You’re welcome. Sounds like a great party for the 4th! Hope there will be some pics with that post! I missed the 4th for 11 years in Ireland (we used to try to have a barbecue for our Irish friends but gave up because it rains every year:-( and we’re going to try the same thing here for our neighbours now that we’re in La Charente, in spite of still being surrounded by boxes. Enjoy London and Oxford!

  1. Awesome post! The conclusion, which takes us through a thrilling ethymological journey, reminds me of the father in the movie “My big, fat, Greek wedding”: “Give me a word, any word, and I will show you it comes from Greek… the greatest civilization!”… hilarious film by the way!
    Happy 4th in Paris! My workday is almost over, pfew!

    • Ah, thanks for reminding me of that! I just recounted that scene in the car when the father explains how “kimono” is a Greek word! Michel has never seen the film. I’ll have to rent it when we’re back in the US later this summer. Thanks for the Fourth of July greetings! I hope you had a great Fourth as well!

      • Exactly, good memory on “kimono”! Yes, you’ll have to share it with Michel. My mom-in-law gave us the DVD and said: “That is how I felt at your wedding”… She loved my big, loud family with crazy traditions (like escorting the bride & groom on a couch mounted on a tow truck out of the church… My cousins throwing my girlfriends in the pool…), but with the language and cultural barrier, she was quite overwhelmed ;-)
        We had a good, quiet 4th just the two of us, it was nice. Take care!

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