Language of Shoes

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Tue Aug 9 21:50:23 UTC 2005

I don't know when you were teaching at BU, but I was stunned in 1980 to hear more than one female graduate student in Dixie say, in just those words, "The first thing I look at is the shoes."

One testified that she'd actually dumped a guy because "He was really cute, but he wore those '50s type shoes."

Cue _Twilight Zone_ theme.


Michael McKernan <mckernan at LOCALNET.COM> wrote:
---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Michael McKernan
Subject: Language of Shoes

Larry Horn wrote;

>(although I have no idea what they are--I somehow never learned how
>to decode communication from footware), but not "come fuck-me", but I
>take it that's what's involved here, unless I have the C wrong. (As
>I say, shoes don't talk to me.)

You're not alone in being linguistically bare-foot, Larry. I've been
trying to learn from my students. When I taught at Boston University,
where shoe-talk is a big deal, I did pick up a few pointers, but still feel
so far from fluent that I can barely attempt a conversation.

One of my students said to me: 'First, I look at the shoes!' Her fellow
students readily agreed: many of them got their very first
impressions/messages from a stranger's shoes. Perhaps the most simple
decision I made, each day, was which shoes to wear: my black leather
'sneakers', unless the weather was too wet or snowy, when I'd switch to my
snow-boots. I did have a third choice of black oxfords, but never wore
them except to rare, particularly formal events. Day-to-day, I was
thoughtlessly communicating a message I still don't quite understand, to at
least a significant fraction of everyone I met.

Many of my students (particularly women, but including many of the men)
were able to state an understanding of the message conveyed by any
particular shoe (but best, in the context of a wearer and a social
situation). The degree to which my students agreed on these messages was
pretty convincing, in terms of the idea that there was a language of shoes
which was shared by that group.

I suppose that this language would be very difficult to pin down, since
shoes change so rapidly.

In trying to understand how the rapid changes spread among my students, the
most coherent (to me, anyway) answers I got were that fashion magazine (and
general) advertising spread the latest messages (non-verbally, for the most
part, but perhaps with some hints encoded in the advertising copy). If
this is true, then of course I wonder how the shoe designers and marketers
gain their power and make their decisions...there must be some kind of
dialog between designers and customers, no? Some shoes are probably
rejected by consumers, for instance.

I suppose that it's just as well that I have other fish to fry, and haven't
really put much effort into delving further into this. If anyone else has,
especially from a linguistic perspective, I'd like to hear about it. I
assume that there are plenty of feminist and other political, perhaps
post-modernist studies of shoe culture (I've seen a few). But my students
have convinced me that this is not just a feminist (or female) matter: men
are also participants, witting or unwitting, in 'language of shoes'
discourse , though the dialect may be quite distinct in some ways (and
pretty much the same in others). Spill-over from non-verbal shoe language,
to English (or other) shoe-slang, might be one place to start a study. I'd
much appreciate a further discussion of shoe slang--and more mainstream
terminology as well. Seems to me I've heard some male shoe-slang that has
'gay' origins, for instance, but I can't seem to remember it.

Michael McKernan

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