Q: I have always read, and heard, that you “set foot” when you enter a place. Now I seem to hear “step foot” very often. Are both correct?
A: The usual expression is “set foot,” but “step foot” is very popular, and it’s not all that new. In fact, both phrases have been around for centuries.
The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of foot-setting going back to the 1400s and of foot-stepping dating from the 1500s.
However, a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates a sharp rise in the use of “step foot in” since 1980, which may explain why you’ve been noticing the usage.
Are both expressions correct? Well, we don’t use “step foot,” and you won’t find it in standard dictionaries or idiom references.
But we wouldn’t say it’s incorrect—not when the usage has been around for hundreds of years and now has millions of users.
Here’s the result of Google searches for the two expressions: “set foot in,” 35.5 million hits, vs. “step foot in,” nearly 6.7 million.
The oldest of these two usages—“set foot” in, into, on, at, and so on—showed up in the late 15th century, according to citations in the OED.
The earliest example in the dictionary is from The Foure Sonnes of Aymon, William Caxton’s 1490 translation of a French romance of chivalry: “I shall never sette foote there.”
The first example with a preposition comes from Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus (1542): “It was a foule shame for a phylosophier to sette his foote into any hous where bawderie wer kepte.”
As for “step foot,” the OED has examples going back to the mid-16th century of the phrase used with various prepositions.
The earliest is from John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of The Comedye of Acolastus, by Gulielmus Gnapheus: “Steppe not one foote forth of this place.”
The first Oxford example of the phrase with the preposition “in” is from a poem, written sometime before 1547, by the Earl of Surrey: “Stepp in your foote, come take a place, and mourne with me awhyle.”
Here’s a 19th-century example, from Richard Burleigh Kimball’s novel Was He Successful? (1864): “When Hiram stepped foot in the metropolis.”
Although nearly all of the OED’s “step foot” citations are from British sources, the dictionary says the usage now shows up only in US English.
If you’d like to see another take on the subject, you might look at our friend Merrill Perlman’s Language Corner column in the Columbia Journalism Review.
We’ll end with an example of the usage from Chronicles (2004), the first volume in Bob Dylan’s planned three-part memoir:
“I had stopped going down to the Café Wha? in the afternoons. Never stepped foot in there again.”