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Q From Russell Clarke: Have you researched the etymology of the phrase shoe-string budget? My German partner keeps seeing it in the English-language press, but he can’t understand where it comes from. And he keeps bothering me about it because I’m an editor! I’ve searched the Web but have found nothing conclusive. Could you give us some history?

A Trying to track down its history isn’t easy. Everybody who has investigated the various idioms in shoestring seems to have come away almost as puzzled as when they started. Its meaning is obvious enough to native English speakers: to do something on a shoestring is to manage on an insufficient budget (a shoestring budget) or undertake a project with limited resources. Hence the range of travel guides that include the phrase in their titles (Southeast Asia on a Shoestring), or this recent usage from a UK newspaper:

The Sports Council for Wales has launched its new campaign, Shape up on a Shoestring, to help you slim down your waistline without slimming down your wallet.

South Wales Echo, 11 Nov. 2009.

For most English speakers shoestring was long ago replaced by either shoelace or bootlace. It survives almost exclusively in this set phrase. That suggests the idiom is fairly old and in fact it’s recorded from rather more than a century ago, with exactly the same meaning as it has now:

The whole fabric of business erected by those people was based on a shoe string, and when trade became dull it had to collapse.

The Wall Street Journal, 25 Mar. 1897.

But why a shoestring? The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms records an attempt to explain it: “One fanciful theory is that debtors in British prisons would lower a shoe by its laces from a window so as to collect funds from visitors or passers-by.” Obvious folk etymology, you may say. Well, up to a point. Jonathon Green records in the Chambers Dictionary of Slang that the debtors’ ward in Newgate Prison was called the Shoe because its inmates begged in just this way.

However, the story must be irrelevant because the idiom is definitely American and appears after the period in which Newgate was such a notorious place of incarceration. There is, however, a slightly earlier US usage, known from 1887, in reference to a disreputable group of men who were called shoestring gamblers, seemingly because they played only for small stakes. (Or did they, perhaps. wear very thin ties? perhaps a fashion guru might elucidate?)

Shoestring by itself has often been used as a qualifier, but almost always in the sense of something long and thin. A US Congressional district was once called the shoestring district because of its shape on the map; a number of plants with long, thin stems or roots have it in their names, such as the prairie shoestring; shoestring potato consists of narrow strips of fried potato.

However, it’s in other qualities of this humble item that we must surely find the origin. Shoestrings were common and cheap and also thin and fragile. The former pair of words implies a small amount of money, the latter slender resources. By putting them together we are supplied with an image of getting by on less than is really required.

This doesn't preclude cultural factors having been implicated in its creation, in particular the image of poor immigrants selling shoelaces on the streets of New York and other cities in the nineteenth century. The key association may even have been Biblical:

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.

Genesis 14:22-23, King James Bible, 1611. At the time of the translation, a lachet was a thong, in particular a shoelace or shoestring, which makes shoelatchet a tautology. It was once thought that the similar latch for a door fastening (which was commonly operated from outside by a leather string) was the same word, but it is now believed to be from Old English laeccan, to take hold of or grasp.

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Page created 19 Dec 2009