The Grammarphobia Blog

Sabotaging a language myth

Q: I’ve read on the Web that the word “sabotage” originated in the practice of French workers tossing their wooden shoes (i.e., sabots) into machinery in labor protests. Is there any truth to this? Or is it just another word origin that’s too good to be true?

A: The word “sabotage” does have something to do with wooden shoes, and it did grow out of the labor movement in the late 19th century.

But it didn’t originate in the practice of workers tossing their sabots into machinery to botch up the works. In fact, there’s no evidence that any sabots were ever tossed into any machinery.

In his book Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism (1913), the socialist and labor reformer John Spargo says the French word sabotage was coined in the 1890s by the anarchist Émile Pouget.

It first appeared in writing, Spargo says, in a report that Pouget and his fellow anarchist, Paul Delassale, wrote to an 1897 congress of the Confédération Générale du Travail in Toulouse.

In their report, the two anarchists recommended that French labor unions adopt a policy of work slowdowns and inefficiencies that had been used successfully by British trade unionists.

This policy was popularly known in Britain as Ca’ Canny, a Scottish colloquialism that Spargo translates as “go slow” or “be careful not to do too much.”

In searching for a French equivalent for the expression, Pouget came up with the noun sabotage, Spargo writes.

It was based on the French verb saboter, which originally meant to make loud clattering noises with wooden shoes.

“In France, especially in the rural districts,” Spargo says in explaining the appropriateness of the term, “it has long been the custom to liken the slow and clumsy worker to one wearing wooden shoes, called ‘sabots.’ ”

He adds that the “phrase, Travailler a coups de sabots, to work as one wearing wooden shoes, has long  been used with reference to the slow and clumsy worker.”

“The idea is obvious: the peasant with heavy wooden shoes walks clumsily and slowly in company with those who wear shoes of leather,” he writes. “So the word ‘sabotage’—literally ‘wooden shoeage’—was coined … as a good translation of the British term Ca’ Canny.”

Archie Green, in a 1960 article in American Folklore, the journal of the American Folklore Society, also says Pouget coined the term for use in the 1897 report.

The noun “sabotage” was first used in English in 1910, the verb in 1918, and the noun “saboteur” in 1921, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED also gives the origin as the French verb saboter, which it says originally meant “to make a noise with sabots.”

In English today, the OED says, the noun “sabotage” means “the malicious damaging or destruction of an employer’s property by workmen during a strike or the like; hence gen. any disabling damage deliberately inflicted, esp. that carried out clandestinely in order to disrupt the economic or military resources of an enemy.”

The noun’s earliest English citation in the OED, from a 1910 issue of the Church Times, referred to a strike by French rail workers that year: “We have lately been busy in deploring the sabotage of the French railway strikers.”

Because the word was often used in connection with that turbulent 1910 strike, some sources mistakenly report that “sabotage” was coined in response to it.

Supposedly the word came from the striking workers’ destruction of railway property, perhaps brake shoes or fasteners for railroad ties.

Whoops! The French word “sabotage” preceded the 1910 strike by 13 years.

Another popular myth we can lay to rest.

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