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Sabotage

Shoes for industry!

Dear Word Detective: I recently read on Twitter that the word “sabotage” comes from the Middle Ages, when unhappy workers would throw their wooden shoes (“sabots”) into the knitting machines to clog them and stop production. Someone else then said that this is also where the term “clog” comes from. Is any of this true? — Eldon 82.

Of course. Everything you read on Twitter is true. They have a staff of thousands of researchers all over the world poring over every Tweet with an obsessive devotion to accuracy that would make New Yorker fact checkers swoon with envy. [Long pause.] Whaddayou, nuts? They only named it “Twitter” because “Global Matrix of Horse-Hockey” didn’t poll well with focus groups. In terms of truth, sobriety and public enlightenment, Twitter makes Wikipedia look trustworthy.

On the other hand, while the story you’ve heard about “sabotage” is wrong, it’s not entirely nuts. “Sabot” is indeed the French word for a shoe made, at least partly, out of wood. (“Sabot” also has another meaning having to do with firearms and artillery.) And “clog” meaning “wooden shoe” is the same word as the “clog” that a plumber clears from your sink. And discontented workers have used wooden shoes to register their anger, although not by throwing them into the machinery.

The key to the truth about the origin of “sabotage” lies in the fact that the word did not arise directly from “sabot.” It comes from the French verb “saboter,” which means “to walk noisily or clumsily with, or to make a loud clattering noise with, wooden shoes.” In an extended sense, “saboter” has long also meant “to work clumsily or incompetently” at any task, or “to make a mess of things,” including artistic performances (dance, music, etc.). In an industrial setting, “sabotage” has sometimes included actually damaging machinery, usually in the course of a strike. But “sabotage” in the classic “clumsy” sense of “saboter” has more often been used in situations where strikes and other labor actions were impossible or illegal. In such cases, workers have found that simply working very, very slowly or making frequent mistakes often helps management see reason.

In war, of course, “sabotage” has played a more violent role, including blowing up bridges, etc., to disrupt the enemy’s ability to fight. “Sabotage” first appeared in English in print in 1910 (“We have lately been busy in deploring the sabotage of the French railway strikers.” The Church Times, London).

“Clog” the verb comes from “clog” the noun, and where that came from is anybody’s guess. It first appeared in the 14th century, from an unknown source, meaning “a lump or block of wood.” By the mid-15th century “clog” was used to mean “a large block of wood attached to the leg or the neck of an animal (or person) to restrict movement.” By the mid-16th century, “clog” meant anything that impeded, literally or figuratively, progress or movement. The use of “clog” to mean “wooden shoe” harks back to that original “block of wood” sense (since clogs were carved from such blocks) and first appeared in the early 15th century. Clogs were originally worn by agricultural workers who often worked in wet and muddy fields as well as by those who merely wished to navigate city streets without soaking their socks (“He leaves his clogs in the passage … in the muddiest weather he never has a speck on his foot.” Thackeray, 1843).

2 comments to Sabotage

  • Matthew Choate

    I’d learned the original explanation of the origins of the word ‘sabotage’ mentioned not from twitter or Facebook but from my poli-sci professor in the late 80’s.
    He taught us that the shoes ‘sabots’ were thrown into the machines to stop them from running during a revolt.
    How did you come to your conclusion? I have a lot of late night, drunken conversations to take back if I’ve been wrong all these years

  • Eric

    The clogs in the machine etymology is a fanciful late 20th century invention – it has no origin in historical studies of the word which are based on the French verb saboter, as explained above. The clog in the machine derivation came into popular use because it was used in a Star Trek film.

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