The Grammarphobia Blog

Kicks in the closet

Q: I have a question that occurred to me while reading your article about “kick the can down the road.” This isn’t life-altering or profound, but what is the origin of the slang use of “kicks” to mean shoes?

A: The use of “kicks” for shoes originated in 1890s American slang, and judging from the earliest examples, it had unsavory beginnings among tramps and thieves. 

The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Jack London tale, “The Frisco Kid’s Story” (1895), which is narrated by a “road kid” or tramp: “Dere wuz nothin’ left but his kicks, I mean shoes.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has another early example, from an 1897 article in Popular Science Monthly on the subject of criminal lingo.

In the article, “The Language of Crime,” the writer A.B.F. Crofton discusses “the general tendency of the criminal to reduce the abstract to the concrete, to denote the substantive [the noun] by one of its attributes.”

Crofton goes on to give a few examples: “Thus a purse is a leather; a street car is a short, comparing its length with a railroad car; a handkerchief is a wipe; and a pair of shoes a pair of kicks.” (We’ve expanded the Random House citation to provide more context.)

So there’s the likely explanation: shoes are used to kick, hence the noun “kicks.” It makes a lot of sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the phrase originated in the US, but doesn’t hint at the connection between shoes and kicking.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a prison memoir, Life in Sing Sing (1904), whose author, identified only as “No. 1500,” defines many jailhouse terms including this one: “Kicks, shoes.”

After a few decades, “kicks” gradually lost its underworld associations and became more widely used for “shoes” in the general population.

Random House has several examples of this wider usage, including one from a 1927 story by S. J. Perelman: “Beige lizard kicks are being worn a good deal this season.”

And a 1932 article in the journal American Speech said “kicks” was being used for “shoes” among students at Johns Hopkins University. 

This slang term is still with us, though it now has a more specific meaning. In street language and in youth culture generally, “kicks” means sneakers or athletic shoes.

Random House has several examples of this newer usage, including one from a 1984 issue of USA Today: “Here at the Roxy Roller Rink, sneakers are called ‘kicks.’ ”

The slang dictionary also has two 1993 citations: U.C.L.A. Slang II, edited by Pamela Munro, says students use “kicks” to mean “athletic shoes.” And the rap song “I Got It Goin’ On,” recorded by Us3, has the line “Sport the dope threads and the $100 kicks.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­