Saturday, January 15, 2011

Still Repeated in the 23rd Century

In one of the Star Trek films or episodes, one of the characters (Lt. Saavik, I think it was) explains the word sabotage saying that in ancient times people wore wooden shoes, sabots. And when labor disputes arose, they used to throw their sabots into the machinery to stop it—hence the word sabotage. Delightful!

That word, sabot, is a thirteenth century French word, by the way. And, by the way, this etymology of the word sabotage is not accepted by the experts—although they do confirm that the story has legs. Of course it does! Great story—and still told in the twenty-third century…

Evidently the real origins come from careless or clumsy behavior—not least making too much noise when walking, which you would do if you walked about in wooden shoes. The word came from saboter, to bungle, to handle clumsily. It is also found in contexts of playing music badly. Perhaps those who could not afford leather shoes were in a lower class? And lacked refinement? And managed to mess things up?

Like the Star Trek crowd, I for one prefer the vivid picture of angry laborers taking off their clogs and stopping the damned machines in an upsurge of sawdust.


  1. Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.

    My favorite etymological dispute among so-called experts is that which derives from the French expression for "to wax skis, or to rub skis with wax" and its profound influence on the English-speaking world.

  2. That reminds me of a cartoon I saw in Germany in my army days. Two soldiers in a jeep driving in Germany. Ahead a jumble of German road signs. KEINE DURCHFAHRT, EINFAHRT, AUSFAHRT, ÜBERFAHRT, and so on. One soldier to another: “What a mess. I don’t know where to fahrt.”

  3. It's one of the few universal words from Proto-Indo-European all the way to the present.


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