My friend and I are having a dispute on the origins of the word sabotage. I thought that the word derives from Belgian railwaymen’s practice of unseating rails from their shoes (sabots) during the great strike of 1905. However, she contends its origins lie in France, and that it was coined when striking factory workers inserted their shoes (sabots) in machinery renderring it inoperable. Could you clear this up for us?
The root of “sabotage” certainly is the French word “sabot” (shoe). Hoever, I was under the impression that the original French saboteurs were the equivalent of England’s Luddites- they arose during the Industrial Revolution, and tried to stop machines in any way they could. That included throwing shoes into the gears.
Don’t forget that a “sabot” isn’t just any old shoe. I’m fairly certain the word specifically referred to a shoe carved from wood (like the Dutch wore).
BTW - The wost popular small sailboat (8’) in California is called a sabot, because it resembles a wooden, Dutch shoe.
My well-worn copy of Wm & Mary Morris’s DICTIONARY OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS concurs that the origin is from the French word sabot meaning “[wooden] shoe” or “boot” and “derives its meaning of deliberate delay or obstruction of work from some use of sabots for this purpose.” They cite the story that workers threw their wooden shoes into factory machinery to cause damaging delays, but add that sounds implausible: “Wooden shoes have traditionally been worn by peasants, rather than by city-dwelling factory workers.” The Morrises hypothesize “that the first instances were peasant revolts against oppressive landlords …that might well have taken the form of workers trampling down the landowner’s crops.”
The word first appeared in English around 1910, and became popular during WWI in the sense we know it today.
Eric Partridge cites that saboter is a French verb (from Medieval French) meaning to kick with the foot, and thus to shake or torment, later to work carelessly, then adopted into English. He also cites that the word sabot itself comes from two Old French words, savate and botte , two forms of shoe.