Why Athletic Shoes Are Called “Sneakers”

sneakersToday I found out how tennis shoes came to be called sneakers.

When it comes to athletic shoes, calling them something like “walkers” or “runners” seems more appropriate than calling them “sneakers.” These days most people don’t use their sneakers for sneaking, but back in the day they were associated with people who were up to no good and sneaking around.

First, a little background: the word “sneak” comes from the Old English word “snican.” At first, the word meant “to desire, reach for” and evolved into “to creep or crawl.” By the 1500s, “sneaking” came to mean “to move or walk in a stealthy or slinking manner, as if ashamed to be seen.” A person who took part in sneaking became known as a sneak by 1643, but sneaking was a lot more difficult back then—loud, clunky shoes had a habit of giving a sneak away.

This problem was solved when rubber soled shoes started becoming popular in the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution meant that shoes were finally able to be produced on a massive scale; people no longer had to rely on shoemakers to cobble together each shoe by hand. Along with faster production, new products were also introduced to the shoe industry—in this case, vulcanized rubber. The first rubber-soled shoes were developed in England and called “plimsolls.” Rubber soles made for a quiet shoe, a perfect tool for sneaks.

By 1862, rubber-soled shoes were known as “sneaks” after the people who used them to their advantage (not just people up to no good, but anyone who wanted to wander around quietly). This is evidenced in an article published that year:

The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or goloshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women [of Brixton Prison].

“Sneaker” appears to have caught on pretty quickly. In 1887, another note appeared in the Boston Journal of Education:

It is only the harassed schoolmaster who can fully appreciate the pertinency of the name boys give to tennis shoes — sneakers.

Two years later, in 1889 there is evidence of the department store Jordan Marsh advertising its “sneakers.” In 1895, the term appeared in Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary referring to the shoes rather than the people and the name as been more or less popular ever since.

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Bonus Facts:

  • “Sneakers” is a much more common term in America than it is elsewhere in the world. In Britain, you’d be more likely to hear “trainers.”
  • The Old English word “snican” also gave us “snake.”
  • The brand Keds would have you believe that they created the first sneakers, but this is incorrect. Their parent company, Goodyear (of rubber tire fame), was the first licensee of the process of vulcanization, which involves attaching cloth to rubber in a permanent bond. However, they didn’t start experimenting with shoes until 1892. As you can see above, the word “sneakers” was around long before then. That said, Keds were probably the first such shoe to be mass-marketed.
  • Keds were originally going to be called “Peds” from the Latin root for feet, but Peds was already taken. From there, it was a toss-up between Keds and Veds, and you know which one they chose.
  • Reebok has a slightly more interesting story about how the brand came to have its name. It was originally part of J.W. Foster & Sons, which was based in Britain and had been in business since 1895. Two of the Fosters decided they wanted to create an athletic shoe company in 1958, so they began searching around for ideas about what to call it. They learned that Joe Foster, the founder of the company, had once won a footrace and had been given a dictionary for his efforts. In the dictionary, they found the word “rhebok”—an African antelope known for its speed. “Rhebok” is the Afrikaans spelling, they chose to use the English spelling of “Reebok.”
  • Adi and Rudi Dassler were brothers who made shoes, including the pair that Jesse Owens wore when he won his races at the 1936 Olympics. It wasn’t until 1949 that Adi Dassler created his own company. The name? Adidas. So no, Adidas does not mean “All Day I Dream About Soccer!” (Adi’s brother Rudi went on to create another company—Puma.)
  • Converse was named after Marquis Mills Converse, who created the shoe company in 1908. So what about their “Chuck Taylor All Stars?” The All Star started out as a basketball shoe in 1917, but it wasn’t selling very well because of some tough competition. In 1921, basketball player Chuck Taylor went to Converse in need of a job, and Converse hired him as a salesman. Not only did Taylor sell Converse, but he also made suggestions to improve the design (using some of his basketball expertise) and would put on demonstrations to show players why they should wear Converse when they played basketball. His signature was even added to a patch on every shoe that left the factory. Even with all of his contributions, he was only ever paid a salary for his 40 years working at the company, and never received any extra profit or commission for his ideas.
  • Chucks weren’t the only shoe to be named after an athlete. The Air Jordan shoe put out by Nike is, of course, is named after the legendary Michael Jordan. Meanwhile, the Adidas Stan Smith is named after a tennis player who won both Wimbledon and the US Open in the early 1970s. The Puma Clyde is named for Walt Frazier, nicknamed “Clyde,” who played basketball for the New York Knicks. (He was nicknamed Clyde because he tended to dress like Clyde Barrow, the famous bank robber.)
  • Nike, of course, is named after the Greek goddess of victory. Today, Nike is the top-selling brand of sneakers. Rounding out the top five are Adidas, Reebok, Puma, and Converse.
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