It is generally assumed that the word “sabotage” had its origins in the French word sabot, which refers to a large, heavy wooden clog made of a single piece of wood and worn by workers. However, there are quite a few theories of the link between those clogs and a word referring to the deliberate destruction of property by an enemy or protesting workers, and even a theory that the word relates to a different sort of shoe altogether.
Possibly the most common theory of the origin of the term is that the first instances of sabotage were French Luddites who threw their wooden clogs into powered looms to clog the machinery during the Industrial Revolution. However, some historians doubt such an origin of the term. In any event, it seems unlikely that poor workers would have thrown their own shoes away and that they could certainly have accomplished the same purpose with other, less valuable, pieces of wood that would have been more difficult to link to the workers responsible.
A related theory of the origin of the term comes from the same country and period of history. “Sabot” was a derogatory term for rural people who continued to wear wooden clogs after city dwellers had begun to wear leather shoes. Employers would import those “sabots” into the city to replace striking workers. The rural workers, being unfamiliar with the modern factory equipment, worked slowly and poorly. The striking workers discovered after returning to the factory that they could win their demands by working like the “sabots” rather than striking.
Another theory is that the original saboteurs were peasants who trampled crops with their wooden clogs to coerce landowners to meet their demands.
Yet another theory is that the term originated during a French railway strike of 1912 (Some accounts say that the strike occurred in 1910.) and had nothing at all to do with the wooden shoes formerly worn by peasants. The word “sabot” was also used to describe wooden shoes used to keep the rails of railway lines in place. The strikers loosened or destroyed the sabots, making rail traffic difficult or impossible.
Although the railway strike theory may not be the ultimate origin of the term, it is likely that the event resulted in the introduction of the word “sabotage” into the English language. This assumption is based on the introduction of the word “sabotage” into the English language in the early twentieth century. While we may never know for sure the origin of the word, there is little doubt that the origin relates to wooden shoes – whether worn by humans or used on railways.
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