Shoestring

Anybody got a recipe for “green shoots”?

Dear Word Detective:  My wife says we are now to live on a “shoestring” budget.  In fact I had to save up to send this email.  What is the origin of “shoestring” budget? — Chris.

I feel your pain.  More importantly, however, I feel my pain, the result of tripping over a large dog in a small room darkened in order to save a few cents on electricity.  Recently it was decided that we would be replacing all the 60 watt light bulbs in the house with 40 watters.  Apparently there was a vote and the cats were swayed by some cheap tuna.  Whatever.  But when I went to fetch the bulbs at the store, I discovered that the bulb cartel had decided that I should be ashamed of myself for wanting 40 watt bulbs.  Henceforth (whenceforth?), Mister Energy Pig (me) would do just fine with 34 watt bulbs, a bizarre denomination that now occupied the old 40 watt shelf.  Recognizing an insurmountable conspiracy when I see one, I cocked a snook at the security camera and bought a dozen.  According to my calculations, we should see some savings around the time the Sun burns out.

And so it goes.  But I’m not sure that a country accustomed to associating the word “shoestring” with French fried potatoes is ready for real austerity, and certainly not with the thriftiness implied by the use of “shoestring” you’ve encountered.

“Shoestring” in the sense of “a very small amount of money” or “very little capital” or “a slender margin” dates back to the late 19th century, although “shoestring” in the literal sense, meaning the cord used to tie a shoe, first appeared in the early 17th century.  A business begun and operated in its early days “on a shoestring” has long been, of course, a staple of the lore of capitalism (“Every business man who has made a big success of himself started on a shoestring,” 1932), although it’s worth noting that no one is fond of a business that fails to progress past that marginal stage.  And with more and more individuals finding themselves struggling to live from day to day “on a shoestring” (a Google web search for “living on a shoestring” finds more than 17,000 hits), whatever romance once attached to the phrase (“Australians in England, youth-hosteling on a shoestring,” The Thornbirds, 1977) is fading fast.

Just why a shoestring should be the symbol of a precarious existence has been the subject of debate among etymologists for years.   But shoestrings are notable in a number of respects that  make them good symbols of an “iffy” lifestyle.  They are humble but nearly universally-known items to begin with, they are thin and won’t hold a lot of weight, and they tend to break at the most inconvenient times.  There was also a time when the truly thrifty would save broken shoestrings for use around the house, making “shoestring” shorthand for an existence where even items that others would consider trash become valuable.

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