So, sabotage: what does it mean, and where does it come from?

I wrote a post recently about mercenary troops through the ages, and sabotage (raise your hand if you’re surprised) showed up.

To sabotage something, today, means to damage it, to render it unusable or in need of repairs, or to perform a task so badly as to make it pointless.

Examples of the word in use include:

  • We slashed the tyres to sabotage their transport.
  • The interruption completely sabotaged the flow of the class.

The most direct word origin is a French word, ‘sabot’, which means a wooden shoe, a clog. An expression common in my linguistic background was ‘clog up the works’, in the sense of slowing things down, which is almost certainly related. The term appear to date back to the early 1800s (in French),

Most people who’ve thought about the word ‘sabotage’ have a really alluring theory that it relates to abused French peasants tossing their sabots into the works of their machinery and causing shut-downs. Unfortunately, this has been pretty convincingly de-bunked in terms of actual history (but hang onto the thought for your writing – just because it’s not true here doesn’t mean something similar didn’t happen in your world-building).

The Online Etymology Dictionary and Grammarphobia hold that while there is a link to sabots, the actual reference is to workers moving slowly and clumsily in wooden shoes, and therefore being far less productive than those in leather shoes; industrial action (or inaction), if you will, rather than actual damage.

For another take on the topic of clogs doing some serious damage, check out Jackie Chan in ‘Who Am I?’ fighting with and in clogs.

The origins of the word, in this instance, may be of more interest to writers even than the word itself. As a reader, I find that it’s the small details in world-building that can really make a story click into place for me, and the idea behind sabotage, of a historical item of clothing that so hindered work as to have become proverbial, is something that could be built into almost any civilisation.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).