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.

16 comments on this post.
  1. emma:

    When I was learning to sew 40 years ago, the foot pedal on a sewing machine was called a footfeed. It controls the speed at which the fabric is “fed” into the path of the needle. (You can also feed the fabric by hand, using a wheel on the side of the machine.)

  2. Paul Nichols:

    My father left us 50 years of remarkably interesting diaries; almost every day has an entry. It has fallen to me to transcribe them so that all his surviving children, grandchildren and other relatives can have a CD loaded with his activities from 1931 to 1981.

    Not two days after I read this article of yours about “Foot Feed,” did I run across this entry by Dad.

    “Saturday, March 25, 1967
    Worked 8 – 4 Outside. Extra heavy traffic. Two lanes open most all day. In pm took tire off truck & to station. Fixed door handle & put stronger spring on foot feed.”

    He was referring to his pickup truck. I personally heard him use the term many times when I was growing up.

    And “emma” above just reminded me of my mom and aunts who also used the term “foot feed” for the sewing machine pedal. And that reminded me that I don’t remember Mom calling it a sewing machine; just her “Singer.”

    Thanks for being here.

  3. Carol Campbell:

    I clearly remember footfeed, as do I remember the choke. The choke on the dash could be pulled out after the car was started and left at a nice running speed while you went in to get another cup of coffee. When you were ready to leave, the car was nice and warm. And the dimmer switch was on the floor, just a little round thing you tapped with your foot. What a much better idea than having to take your hands off the wheel to brighten or dim your lights. And running boards, and wind wings …

  4. words1:

    Yeah, whatever happened to wing windows? My mother had an early 1950s Studebaker with wing windows, and the were absolutely the best way to ventilate a car.

  5. Richard Eby:

    My dad usually referred to the gas pedal as the “footfeet”. He was born in 1907 in Gage, Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), and probably learned to drive when he was a teenager. So yes, “footfeet” probably goes back to at least the 1920’s.

  6. Karen D,:

    Thanks for answering a dispute between my husband and I. After being married over 45 years I clearly heard him say for the first time “footfeed” and I said you mean “footfeet”. No one we asked had ever heard of either of the expressions. Turns out my folks are from Texas/Oklahoma and his from Iowa/S. Dakota area. Interesting!

  7. John B:

    My wife and I were shopping this PM and driving back home when something slid underneath the accelerator pedal and I without thinking, automatically called it a footfeet. My wife said, “what the heck is a footfeet”. I suddenly realized what a stupid sounding pair of words it was. My mother is from Germany and my father grew up in Southwest Iowa (born in 1922). So, it had to come from my father. Also a genealogy aside, my father’s mother’s maiden name was Eby (via Illinois and Ohio) , same surname
    as Richard who posted on July 29th of this year.

  8. Simon:

    My father said footfeet. He was born in 1921 and grew up in Belpre, Ohio on the West Virginia border.

  9. KV5R:

    Foot-feed probably goes all the way back to early 1800s water-wheel powered factories and textile mills, where workers stepped on a pedal to tension the drive belts to make the machines go. But I’m just supposing — I haven’t yet found any specific references to it in that context. Still, it seems likely.

  10. michael:

    Interesting. My father also called it a footfeet and I guess I never questioned It. That’s what it was. Just for fun, look up dashboard.

  11. Roger:

    My parents and their siblings were born around 1920. Growing up around them in north central MN I never heard the term accelerator; it was always footfeet.

    Most cars that we had at that time had both a choke and throttle in the dash but the throttle was seldom used; I think we were too poor to waste gasoline to warm up a car; the heaters were poor at best anyway; you just dressed warm, especially feet.

  12. Geno:

    The word footfeet appears in many country songs of the 40s, 50s, and 60s–especially songs about driving trucks and racing cars. Johnny Bond used the term in two of his songs from the 1960s: Hot Rod Lincoln, and The Great Figure Eight Race (“just keep the footfeet on the floor.”

  13. Luke A Fortney:

    From what understood, it also came from the tractor. Where the throttle was usually on the steering column. Then, usually on the right side by your feet were two pedals. Far right was brake and the left was the clutch, and when you pushed in the clutch it also brought down the brake. That set of pedals is what I know of as the footfeet. And sometimes, almost all the time, you had to use both feet for the clutch/break to work…

  14. Diane Young:

    I was practicing in my mind how I would describe a situation at work. I was going to use “footfeet’. My dad always used that word. Saskatchewan, Canada was my dad’s birthplace. Born 1927.

  15. Dale Michael Sievert:

    I was born on a Wisconsin farm in 1942. I rarely heard the word accelerator in the 40s and 50s, instead, hearing and using the word footfeed. I still call it that, especially when talking with my brother. I guess we don’t know any better. Incidentally, farmers in my home of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, never called piles of cow manure in fields “cowpies,” but cow platters, instead. I never heard of cowpies until I moved out of the county.

  16. Jeff Jansen:

    I was born in Iowa, and my mother & father’s generation (and more so my grandparents) used the term “foot feed” for the accelerator or gas pedal. As for the term “foot feet”, it’s only my opinion but I think many people (myself included as a youngster) HEARD “foot feet” and began to say it that way as a result. Once that happened, following generation(s) either said “feed” or “feet” based on who they grew up around and how those people interpreted the phrase the first time they heard it.

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