Little cat feet.
Dear Word Detective: So, I’m shoe shopping online and find a nice pair of “sneakers” I want to purchase. All of a sudden I realize that I have no idea why I should need shoes for sneaking. Walking, jogging, frolicking — yes. Sneaking…er, not so much. Does the name “sneakers” have anything to do with sneaking, or perhaps they’re called sneakers as a joke because the rubber soles tend to make noise. Who knows? Well, hopefully you do. — Clandestine Chris.
Yes, I do. But first, a word about online shoe shopping. A few years ago I would have said that shopping for shoes online was silly, since you can’t exactly try them on by holding your feet up to the screen. Then I took a chance and ordered a pair of “Brown Bear” chukka boots from L.L. Bean. I loved those shoes, and wore them every day. But they finally became sufficiently ratty that I went online to order another pair. Oh noes!, as they say on the internet. Bean had discontinued the best shoes in the whole world! So what I want you all to do is go to the L.L Bean website, right now, and tell them to bring back my shoes. Seriously. I’ll wait here.
Thanks. You guys are the best. Now, to begin at the beginning, the word “sneak” is very old, and our modern form is a descendant of the Old English “snican,” meaning “to desire, reach for,” which became the Middle English “sniken,” meaning “to creep or crawl.” It’s worth noting that the root of that Old English “snican” also gave us “snake.”
“Sneak” as a verb in modern English has a wide variety of senses, but they all involve some aspect of stealth and/or deception. The earliest sense to appear, in the late 16th century, was “to move or walk in a stealthy or slinking manner, as if ashamed or afraid to be seen.” Not surprisingly, a person who behaved is such a manner was, by around 1643, known as a “sneak.”
Fast-forward now to the 19th century, and the neighborhood “sneak” had a new advantage — shoes with soft gum-rubber soles in place of the usual leather, an innovation that made the footsteps of the wearer nearly noiseless. Such shoes, worn for athletic activities as well as in situations where quiet was important, came to be known as “sneaks” by about 1862 (“The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or galoshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women [of Brixton Prison]“). By the end of the century, the term “sneaker” was more common.
The use of “sneak” and “sneaker” for such shoes was a bit jocular, since most wearers had no nefarious motives or even a need for stealth. But another name for the same sort of footwear — “gumshoe” — was, by about 1908, adopted as underworld slang for a police detective who did rely on stealth and secrecy to apprehend evildoers.
Today, now that athletic shoes are a multi-billion dollar industry, the humble term “sneaker” seems to be largely in eclipse, replaced by such specific category terms as “running shoe” or “cross-trainer.” In Britain, athletic shoes in general are known as “trainers.”