It’s a Matlock thing.
Dear Word Detective: While giving a little old lady a ride today, she talked about making the car go faster by pressing the accelerator down, only she called the accelerator pedal the “footfeet,” as in “stepping on the footfeet.” Is there a point of origin or explanation for this term? — Larry S.
Perhaps it’s because the subject line of your email was “Step on it!”, but I feel strangely compelled to ask a question before we begin. When this little old lady asked you for a ride, had she just robbed a bank? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. No, wait, there is something wrong with that (although I could argue making an exception for folks over, say, 75). But I can’t help picturing Grampa Simpson shouting “Floor it, Sonnyboy!” to Homer as Chief Wiggum drops his doughnut in shock.
I get a fair amount of mail from readers asking about strange terms their elderly relatives and neighbors use and wondering if Aunt Ida or Uncle Jebediah has finally shed the shackles of reason and taken to cooking up up their own verb stew. But in nearly every case, the word or phrase in question may have been obscure, antiquated or purely regional in usage, but it definitely wasn’t imaginary. Apparently because of the way human memory works, Uncle Jeb may have forgotten where he parked the car, but he more than likely accurately remembers what they called undersized catfish when he was a child.
So while “footfeet” may sound like the product of one of those “what do you call it” moments, it is (or at least was at one time) a real term meaning “the accelerator of a car.” Citations for “footfeet” (and the alternate form “footfeed”) in the Dictionary of Regional American English (DARE) come from Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin, indicating that it was at one time fairly common in the Midwest and South of the US. The earliest example of “footfeet” in DARE is from 1967, but most of the citations are from people talking about their parents (“My father and both his brothers said ‘footfeet’ for gas pedal”), which would push the dates back to at least the middle of the 20th century and probably much earlier.
The logic of “footfeet” lies in the fact that the original form of the word was actually “footfeed.” The throttle on early cars was usually mounted on the steering column, controlled by hand, and known, logically, as the “handfeed” (which “fed” fuel to the engine). When the throttle was later moved to the floor of the car and controlled by a foot pedal, folks naturally called it a “footfeed.” Then other people, perhaps not entirely clear on what the “footfeed” fed, gradually started to say “footfeet” because “feed” really didn’t seem to go with “foot.” It may not have made much sense, but that’s hardly unusual in the English language.
In any case, “footfeet” seems fairly rare today, but “footfeed” actually still crops up in a number of online car forums.