Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the many contributions of Nancy Friedman, a blogger and consultant who specializes in commercial naming and branding but covers all sorts of language topics. Her “word of the week” last week was plimsoll; she begins her discussion with a definition:

A type of rubber-soled canvas sole developed in the 1830s as beach wear by the Liverpool Rubber Company. The footwear was originally (and in some places still is) known as “sand shoes”; in 1876 a sales representative for the company suggested the “plimsoll” name because, according to the OED, “their rubber band reminded him of the ‘Plimsoll Line’, marking the limit of safety to which merchant ships can be loaded. ‘Plimsolls’ are water-tight, so long as they are not immersed above the level of the water-band.”

I cannot improve on her analysis, so will merely reproduce the part where she puts forth the word as a NOOB (and note my own recent discussion of trainers)  I recommend that you read the entire post, which you can find here. Friedman writes:

The New York Times fashion pages … have added “plimsoll” to the roll of variations on “sneaker.” For example: “On the heels of the now ubiquitous high-end luxury sneaker, the new Swedish brand Eytys offers a refreshingly low-key alternative: platform plimsolls that channel ’90s Venice Beach skater shoes.” – September 3, 2013

In a 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “The Racial Divide on … Sneakers,” Emily Chertoff wrote that “Jordans and Chucks come from the same originary sneaker, a canvas plimsoll from the mid-19th century.” (Yes, originary. It’s a real word.)

Urban Outfitters, based in Philadelphia since 1972, is gradually acclimating American shoppers to the British lexical import by using “plimsoll sneaker” in its product descriptions.


 Massimo Dutti, the upscale offshoot of Spanish mega-brand Zara that recently opened a store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, also plays it safe, selling a “Mixed Plimsole” whose description begins “Combined sneaker in fabric, suede and nappa.”

13 thoughts on ““Plimsoll”

  1. Back in the late sixties and early seventies only posh people called them plimsolls. To the rest of us plebs they were pumps. Of course all the cool kids wore baseys (baseball boots) or tennis shoes. Still got an old pair of baseys upstairs somewhere.

  2. Enid Blyton characters (circa 1940s) always wore ‘rubber soled shoes’ – ideal for creeping about silently in old houses and castles. I had no idea what these were until i saw the illustrations and realised they were plimsolls.

  3. Another name for them, common in Midlothian when I was a kid, and one I can imagine being found mildly amusing west of the puddle was, “Rubbers”.

  4. An American (California) band of the late 70s and early 80s, mostly remembered now for the song “A Million Miles Away”, was called The Plimsouls. Worth looking into really, lots of good songs other than the one big hit.

  5. We called them plimsolls and we weren’t posh. But the ones illustrated can’t possibly ‘classic’ as described because in the old days (I was born in the 60s), plimsolls were ALWAYS black. No other colour was available. If you found a pair that were blue, they were deck shoes and not plimsolls! Also you could get slip-on ones with an elastic insert or lace-up ones like the one in the pic (only black with black laces).

  6. Important update: just saw this on a buzzfeed thing – “Daps is from the brand name Dunlop Athletic Plimsol.” I suspect plimsoll is spelt wrongly here but I quote verbatim.

  7. I would like to say, that Samuel plimsol, to whom I believe the name was taken, was born [here] in Bristol, England. However, in Bristol we do not call them plimsols, no! We call them Daps! We wear our daps to PE and we wear our daps to go out with our mates and play curbs in the street (well maybe not anymore because people are now beginning to think that children playing outside is antisocial and that kids inside watching CBBC is far more appropriate) I have a friend from Greece who was utterly confused by this! Also that instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner, people often have their largest meal of the day at noon thus calling it dinner and a lunch-like meal at 5/6 o’clock however this becomes “tea”. So we have breakfast dinner and tea – she thought everyone went inside for cream tea at 5 o’clock! No, more like cheese and beans on toast with a pint of squash (or tea if, like me, you’ve been drinking the stuff since 18 months old) and watching blue peter.

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