Saturday, June 27, 2009

On a Shoestring

Doug from Traverse City asked about the origin of “on a shoestring.” It started, obviously, as something literal. A shoestring is long, stringlike material threaded through the eyelets of a boot or shoe in order to secure it to the foot. Through the ages, the material has ranged from bark strips to grass to hemp to leather to cotton to nylon and other synthetic materials. Often, a piece of metal or plastic is affixed to the tip to ease its passage through the eyelet without fraying. This tip is called an aglet.

Shoestrings as we know them are a relatively modern product. One of the first recorded instances in English occurs in 1616. It is found in Diary in Japan 1615–22 (Hakluyt Society 1883), by Richard Cocks: “A peare silk garters, with gould fring, and shewstring same.”

Royal footgear aside, shoestrings are generally not expensive. That means that they tend to break or to fray after prolonged use. The boot or shoe is still usable for years to come, but the shoestring needs to be replaced at that point, but with no great outlay of cash.

The literal meaning transferred to a figurative meaning. When something requires a very small amount of money, or when a project is sustained using very little capital, it is said to be done on a shoestring:
• “When I worked my way through college, I lived on a shoestring.”
• “She started her lawn maintenance business on a shoestring.”
• “I’m running this hot dog stand on a shoestring, so I can’t afford to hire a helper.”

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as the first colloquial use: “[He] could draw to a shoe-string, as the saying went, and obtain a tan-yard!” [Century Magazine, April 1882, 884/2]

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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