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shameless pleading





Pump (shoe)

Shoes for industry!

Dear Word Detective:  How did a type of shoe come to be called a “pump”? — Adsaka.

That’s a good question, albeit a short one.  I actually prefer questions with a bit of backstory to them, such as “My mother says that the kind of shoe called a ‘pump’ got its name because in the early days of motor cars all the gas station attendants were female, men being considered unsuitable for the job because they smoked cigars.  Anyway, these female pump attendants supposedly all had to wear special shoes called ‘pumps’ that were designed not to slip on oily pavement.  Is Mom right, or should we have her committed?”

I have the horrible feeling that someday soon I’m going to run across that paragraph on the internet, copied and pasted as fact.  The funny thing is that the kind of shoe called a “pump” actually may be connected to “pump” in the “gas pump” sense.  By the way, the fancy word “albeit,” seen in my first sentence, is simply a Middle English shortening of “although it be.”  Go forth and impress your friends.

The word “pump,” as one would expect in a world where most of the water you’d like to drink is underground, is very old, first appearing in English in the 15th century with the basic meaning of “a mechanical device for raising water.”   Almost all pumps consist of a cylinder of some sort, within which moves a tightly-fitted piston or plunger that draws the water or other fluid through the tube, and a valve that prevents the water from going right back out when the piston goes down again.  There are, of course, types of pumps that don’t involve pistons, but for our purposes that piston is the part to remember.

The origins of the word “pump” are uncertain, but most authorities believe that “pump” was onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) in origin, simply formed as an imitation of the sound of a pump.  “Pump” is, of course, also a verb, and apart from its literal uses, “to pump” has acquired an impressive array of figurative senses over the past few centuries.  We “pump up,” strengthen and enlarge, our muscles at the gym, and we “pump” money or other things into places where they are thought to be needed (“The Fed is still pumping money into Wall Street”) or places where they are definitely not (“You never saw anybody that was deader.  Must have had thirty pills pumped in him,”  Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest, 1929).  Reporters “pump” (intensively question) sources for information, a usage that dates back to the 17th century, and a good speaker can “pump up” (excite) a crowd using nothing more than florid adjectives.

But even given the wide use to which “pump” as both a noun and verb has been put, it’s not easy to discern its connection to “pump” as a type of low-heeled, close-fitting women’s shoe, a usage that arose in the 16th century.  It has been suggested that “pump” in this sense is derived from “pomp” meaning “display of splendor and magnificence,” although the “pump” is usually a pretty simple shoe.

It seems more likely that the “pump” shoe owes its name to the humble mechanical “pump.”  The classic “pump” shoe lacks straps or other fasteners, and the key to the shoe staying on one’s foot is its snug fit, rather like the piston of a pump.  In fact, back in the 16th century, such pistons in pumps were known as “pump shoes” from their vaguely shoe-like shape.  It’s likely that the “pump” shoe took its name, in a 16th century pun, from these close-fitting “pump shoe” pistons.

8 comments to Pump (shoe)

  • T.A.Jones

    The explanation commonly given over here (Britain) is that it refers to a type of flat shoe worn for dancing during the heyday of “taking the waters” at the various spa towns. The room where the spa water was dispensed, and in which, or in adjacent rooms, social events such as dances were held during the season, was commonly called the “pump room(s)” – Hence “pumps” for the shoes which would often have been worn there.

    I myself have “taken the waters” in the pump room at Bath, though not danced therein.

  • Mary

    My costumer friends tell me that pump shoes are so called because they were worn by the fashionable folk who took the waters in the famous Pump Room at Bath, England. Originally they were worn as dress shoes by men. I’ll see if I can find you a citation, if this is of interest.

  • Mary

    T.A. Jones — you said it better than I did. Sorry I hadn’t seen your comment sooner. Mine went to “moderation purgatory” since it was my first comment on this wonderful site. :-)

  • cyranorox

    Robinson Crusoe mentions wearing pumps, clearly low, step-in, strapless [?] shoes for men, and not fancy, but one of the footwear used at sea.

  • austin

    interested in “shoes for the dead”; only citation i know is Firesign Theatre:
    “Shoes for industry-shoes for the dead”
    in imitation of a government public service announcement
    circa WWII on radio.

  • M. janzen

    Referring to shoes as “pumps” dates back to the 1500s, when men and servants wore shoes without heels known as “pompes.” From there, the pompes evolved from the plain, flat shoes worn by men to embellished, heeled shoes worn by women.

  • JohnT

    For M. janzen #6 above: Which country and – or language was this? Do you have more reference?

  • Tyri Hansen

    I suspect that M. janzen may be right. To this day, “pompes” is used in popular French to designate generic shoes, men’s or women’s, heel or no heel, strap or no strap — just plain shoes. (Another word, a slightly more informal or slangy word, is “godasses,” with a connotation of lesser quality.) I have no idea of the origin of either of these two words.

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