Q: Why do the British use “plimsolls” for what Americans refer to as “sneakers”?
A: The British generally use “plimsolls” or “plimsoll shoes” for low-tech athletic shoes with canvas uppers and flat rubber soles. They use “trainers” or “training shoes” for more serious athletic footwear.
Americans use “sneakers” broadly for all sorts of athletic shoes: running shoes, tennis shoes, gym shoes, and so on.
However, “sneakers” does appear now and then in searches of the British National Corpus, and “plimsolls” is not unknown to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
Although “sneakers” is much more common in the US now, an early version of the term, “sneaks,” originated in the UK in the mid-19th century. It referred to noiseless (and presumably sneaky) rubber-soled shoes.
The earliest example for “sneaks” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Female Life in Prison, an 1862 account by “A Prison Matron,” pseudonym of the British novelist Frederick William Robinson:
“The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or goloshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women.”
The next OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from In Strange Company, an 1883 book by the British journalist James Greenwood about the dark side of English life:
“My guide wore a pair of what, in criminal phraseology, are known as ‘sneaks,’ and are shoes with canvas tops and indiarubber soles.”
The word “sneakers” showed up in the footwear sense a few years later in the US. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Sept. 2, 1887, issue of the New York Times. A column, “Crisp Sayings” includes this example from the Boston Journal of Education:
“It is only the harassed schoolmaster who can fully appreciate the pertinency of the name boys give to tennis shoes—sneakers.”
Both “sneaks” and “sneakers” are derived from the verb “sneak,” which the OED defines as to “move, go, walk, etc., in a stealthy or slinking manner; to creep or steal furtively, as if ashamed or afraid to be seen; to slink, skulk.”
The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, believed written in the late 1590s: “Sicke in the worlds regard: wretched and low / A poore vnminded outlaw sneaking home.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)
The OED says “sneak” is of “doubtful origin,” and apparently is not related to the Old English snícan and early Middle English snīken, both meaning to creep or crawl, nor to the Old Norse sníkja, with similarly sneaky senses.
Getting back to your question, the British use of “plimsolls” (sometimes spelled “plimsoles”) for basic athletic shoes showed up in the UK around the same time that “sneakers” appeared in the US.
The first Oxford example is from an Aug. 19, 1885, entry in the Trade Marks Journal, a publication of the British Patent office, now the Intellectual Property Office: ”Universal Plimsoll … Plimsoll Shoes.
Other early examples include a March 24, 1899, advertisement from a shoe and leather journal for “ ‘Plimsoll’ gymnastic and tennis shoes,” and this excerpt from James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake: “Their blankets and materny mufflers and plimsoles.”
The OED says the name of the shoes is apparently derived from “Plimsoll line,” the marking on the hull of a ship that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can safely be submerged when loaded with cargo.
The line itself was named for Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98), a member of Parliament for Derby, who was noted for his work on the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876.
The dictionary cites a 1975 biography of Plimsoll, by George H. Peters, that says a salesman suggested the name for the footwear because the rubber strip between the sole and canvas resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship.