WAITING FOR THE OTHER SHOE TO DROP
Q From Linda Rodina: I am interested in the origin of the phrase, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would you know about this phrase?
A Curiously, few of my reference works even mention this phrase. When they do, it’s usually in the form drop the other shoe!, meaning “go on, say the next obvious thing!”, which seems to have been known for most of the twentieth century.
There was a discussion about your form of the phrase among members of the American Dialect Society some time ago, to no very positive effect, though it was established that it has been around for a long time. Barry Popik found a cartoon about Hitler in the New York World-Telegram for 15 February 1943 entitled “Waiting for That Other Shoe to Drop!”, indicating that the phrase was by then well enough known to be something of a catchphrase. More recently, he found an even older example in the New York Times of March 1921: “If nine out of ten of us hadn’t heard that ‘drop that other shoe’ chestnut and molded our lives accordingly for the sake of the neighbor below us, what would be the end of us?” So it was old even then.
Its source would seem to be the following story. A man comes in late at night to a lodging house, rather the worse for wear. He sits on his bed, drags one shoe off and drops it on the floor. Guiltily remembering everyone around him trying to sleep, he takes the other one off much more carefully and quietly puts in on the floor. He then finishes undressing and gets into bed. Just as he is drifting off to sleep, a shout comes from the man in the room below: “Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”. This may come from music hall or vaudeville, though it would seem that nobody has been able to tie it down more precisely.