“Wrong-foot” (verb, transitive)

This originated as (and still is) a tennis expression. If your opponent is running or moving, say to their right, to “wrong-foot” them is to hit the ball to their left, also known as “behind” them. The OED‘s first citation is from the Daily Telegraph in 1928, and it uses an odd-sounding gerund form: “His ground strokes had not the same speed and polish as Austin’s, nor could he steer all his volleys into the same wrong-footing area.”

The first OED citation in a more standard form doesn’t come till a 1959 book on rugby: “You could pick up the ball as though to go one side, and then, having picked up the ball, swing to the other side… It will wrong-foot the attackers, thereby giving you more time for your kick.”

However, using Google Books, I found an example from 1935:

The source is American Lawn Tennis, a periodical that, to state the obvious, was American. The quotation marks around “wrong-footed” suggest that the phrase was a relatively new borrowing from British tennis discourse. I am an avid tennis player, and my sense is that the term has long been used by people from all countries, yet it retains a British feel. In fact, when I say something like, “You properly wrong-footed me!” I always do so in a mock-British accent, aspirating the “t” in “footed” instead of using the flapping American “foodded.”

Here’s what Ngram Viewer has to say:

My read of the graph is the uptick in both Britain and the U.S. is due to non-sporting, metaphorical uses of the term. The OED defines this as “To disconcert by an unexpected move; to catch unprepared.” Its first example is from a 1957 book:  “‘Let me tell you..that the Government has made enquiries and we are not at all satisfied with the accuracy of your report.’ Kingsley was wrong-footed.”

Neither this nor any of the other citations are from American sources, but it has become a popular NOOB, to the point of cliche. The first eight uses of the term in the New York Times were published between 1964 and 1977, and all concerned tennis. (There were also two references in music reviews to “wrong-footed rhythms” but I consider that unrelated.) Then a 1982 article had this line: “the Japanese are now busy making many of their cars bigger, not smaller, and could catch Detroit wrong-footed once again if fuel economy becomes less important to consumers.”

The trickle has become a flood. The Times used the phrase thirteen times between 2019 and 2021, and only three concerned sports (two soccer and one tennis). For example, from a June 2020 article about the Trump Administration’s approach the pandemic: “Vice President Mike Pence, having been wrong-footed after taking the no-mask custom to the Mayo Clinic, now seemed to be making it up as he went along.”

For a related foot-centered sporting expression, see “on the back foot.

3 thoughts on ““Wrong-foot” (verb, transitive)

  1. Sorry, but no British person would say “you properly wrong-footed me” unless they were pretending to be a foreigner!

  2. That 1982 quotation (about Japanese cars) hits my ear completely wrong. You don’t “catch someone wrong-footed”, except possibly in the literal sporting sense. “Wrong-footed” is very much a past tense verb, not a participle.

    A British writer would say either “Detroit might be wrong-footed” or “they might wrong-foot Detroit”.

  3. Never heard of it (American), but we do commonly use “got off on the wrong foot” to indicate two people who just met ending up disliking each other for various reasons and one often wanting to try again for a better result.

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