The Grammarphobia Blog

Who’s zori now?

Q: My words for “flip-flops” are “zories” and “go-aheads.” My daughter cringes if I call them “thong sandals”—what could she be thinking of? I’ve lived in Iowa for 40 years now, but I grew up in the ’50s on Navy bases in California. Sailors brought the term “zories” back from Okinawa.

A: We’ve saved your question for the Labor Day weekend, summer’s last hurrah. We hope you and our other readers get in one last fling before putting away the flip-flops.

Pat used to call them simply “thongs” when she was growing up in Iowa in the ’50s and ’60s, but some sensitive folks (like you know who) may find the usage cringe-worthy today.

As for your terms for those floppy, usually rubber sandals, you may have picked up “go-aheads” as well as “zories” on those naval bases in California.

The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “go-aheads” this way: “Chiefly Hawaii and California. A sandal held on the foot by a strap between the big toe and the next toe.”

And an item entitled “Marine Corps Slang” in the December 1962 issue of the journal American Speech has this definition: “GO-AHEADS, n. Japanese zori, or the American adaptation, thong sandals.”

Doris E. Thompson, a University of Nebraska contributor who wrote the item, said she’d heard the “go-aheads” usage as a civilian employee at the Marine Corps schools at Quantico, VA.

You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the use of the term “zori” (or “sori”) for those sandals first showed up in English nearly a century ago.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a book called Japan, an 1822 collection of writings edited by the English journalist Frederic Shoberl:

“The shoes of the Japanese consist of straw soles or slips of wood. Those in common use are called sori.”

The OED describes “zori” as a plural noun, and defines it as “Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.” The word is derived from two Japanese terms: so (grass or straw) and ri (footwear or sole), according to Oxford.

(Geta, similar Japanese sandals, are on elevated wooden platforms and worn with kimonos and other traditional clothing.)

Although most of the OED examples cite the use of “zori” in Japan, the most recent is from a 1984 awards manual issued by the British Judo Association:

“Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events and should be worn off the mat in Clubs, Schools, etc.”

All six Oxford citations for the usage have “zori,” not “zoris” or “zories,” as the plural.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “zori” or “zoris” as the plural.

Our Google searches indicate that when an “s” plural is used, the spelling “zoris” is preferred over “zories” two to one.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has citations for “zori” going back to the late 1950s, and says the usage appears most often in the West and Hawaii. The DARE examples include “zori,” “zoris,” and “zories” as plurals.

The earliest DARE citation is from a Sept. 30, 1958, ad in the Idaho State Journal: “ ‘Zoris’ Thong Sandals—Ideal Shower Shoes … 77¢.” (The newspaper is in Pocatello.)

The most recent citation is from Our Lady of the Forest, a 2003 novel by David Guterson (author of the bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars):

“Was there really something called Florida Priest Week? A coterie of priests in bathing suits and zoris, discussing, say, the communion of saints?”

The term “flip-flop,” by the way, is quite old too, first showing up in English in the 1600s, when it referred to the sound of a footfall. However, the OED describes this appearance as a “nonce-use,” one coined for a specific occasion.

In the late 1800s, the term showed up in American political lingo to mean “a change of mind or position on something; a reversal,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 13,1890, issue of the Chicago Tribune: Mr. Ericksen’s friends in the twenty-third executed a flip-flop, and … went over to Michael Francis in a body.”

The use of the word in reference to “a plastic or rubber sandal consisting of a flat sole and straps” showed up in the 1950s, according to OED citations.

Interestingly, the first citation for the usage in the dictionary is from a British customs form filled out in 1958 by the novelist P. D. James: “Maps, 1 pair of ‘flip-flops’, 1 shirt (white), 1 shirt (coloured) [etc.].”

As for “thong,” it’s not just quite old, it’s very, very old, with prehistoric roots in the days before writing.

“Etymologically, a thong is something that ‘binds’ up,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The word, according to Ayto, is derived from thwangg-, a reconstructed prehistoric Germanic term.

“In the Old English period,” he says, “it was thwong; it began to lose its w in the 13th century.”

When it first showed up in Old English sometime before 950, according to the OED, it meant a “narrow strip of hide or leather, for use as a lace, cord, band, strap, or the like.” In the early days, it generally referred to a shoe lace.

The earliest written examples in the OED of “thongs” or “thong sandals” used to mean footwear date from the mid-1960s.

However, we’ve found many examples of “thong sandals” from the 1940s and ’50s in searches of Google Books. Here’s one from A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel by Mary McCarthy:

“They seemed utterly different from the other New Leeds people— a thing Jane often pondered on, aloud, in a dreamy reverie, studying her bare toes in her Mexican thong sandals and half-wondering whether she was getting a callous.”

And we’ve found examples dating from the ’50s of  “thongs” used alone. Here’s one from a July 11, 1958, ad in the Los Angeles Tribune for a leather version of the familiar flip-flops:

“GENUINE ALL / LEATHER THONGS / Glove leather wrapped / Full Foam / cushion construction / $5.00 value … $1.”

Finally, we get to the “thong” your daughter has in mind. It’s described by American Heritage as a “garment for the lower body that exposes the buttocks, consisting of a narrow strip of fabric that passes between the thighs supported by a waistband.”

The earliest citation for what the OED calls a “skimpy garment (similar to a G-string)” is from the April 22, 1975, issue of the Times of London: “Rudi Gernreich['s] … new bathing suit, also available as an item of lingerie … is called the Thong.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from a Feb. 17, 1988, article in the Chicago Tribune: “Cindy Crawford … wears a little lacey swimdress with golden Lycra thong in Sports Illustrated’s annual T-and-A swimsuit issue.”

Again, enjoy the Labor Day weekend, and thongs for the memories!

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