Plimsoll
Posted: 09 February 2019 08:57 PM   [ Ignore ]
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When I was a schoolkid in the 50s the footwear worn in gym was called the plimsoll. I haven’t heard the term in ages and checking the word’s frequency in OED I can see why (Band 3, between 0.01 and 0.1 per million.) A few questions arise. Firstly the origin. Earliest cite in OED for the shoe is in a trade mark journal, 1885. This is just a few years after the first use of Plimsoll line in shipping after English MP Samuel Plimsoll. Any connection there? And secondly was plimsoll ever used in the US? I certainly don’t recall hearing it in American movies, TV, etc. If it wasn’t what was the US equivalent?

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Posted: 09 February 2019 11:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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That isn’t ‘a’ trade mark journal: it’s the Trade Marks Journal, the official gazette of the Patent Office in London, in which trademarks applied for and granted were and are listed (now online at https://www.ipo.gov.uk/t-tmj.htm). So presumably that is the actual date on which shoes called plimsolls began to exist.

I have always been given to understand that the shoes were given that name as the level white band around joining the upper to the sole reminded people of the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull; the Wikipedia entry on Plimsoll shoe cites one Nicholette Jones’s book The Plimsoll Sensation, which gives that as one possible reason but also suggests that an alternative reason might be that this band had a similar function to the the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull: viz. that, if water got above the line, the wearer would get wet.

Either way, there seems to be no doubt that the shoe was named after the Plimsoll Line. Samuel Plimsoll fought a long and very public campaign for legislation to impose a safe load line on merchant vessels; popular periodicals such as Punch carried articles and cartoons on the subject. So the Plimsoll Line was far more familiar to the general public then than it is now.

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Posted: 10 February 2019 03:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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As an USn of that vintage I can only say I’ve either never heard the term plimsoll referring to shoes or it’s so rare that I have totally forgotten it.

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Posted: 10 February 2019 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I’ve run across it, but it was probably while reading British fiction.

The Corpus of Historical American English has a handful of hits for plimsoll in each decade, but these are invariably either a proper name (either to Samuel Plimsoll himself or someone else of that name) or a reference to the plimsoll line on a ship. There are an astounding 361 hits in the 1920s, but these are all from the 1922 novel Rimrock Trail by Joseph Allen Dunn which has a major character named Plimsoll.

So no, plimsoll meaning “shoe” isn’t a word you find in American English.

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Posted: 10 February 2019 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Taking it down a level deeper, does anyone know what kind of name Plimsoll is or what it literally means? Can’t remember ever hearing the name outside of the gym shoes and shipping line meanings.

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Posted: 10 February 2019 11:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Several sites dealing with the history of the Huguenots in Britain assert that Plimsoll is a Huguenot surname of Breton origin, and that there are Plimsolls in Brittany at the present day. What evidence there is for this, I can’t say.

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Posted: 11 February 2019 06:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Rybakin’s Dictionary of English Surnames says it’s from the toponym Plemstall (in Cheshire), which is from the Old English personal name Plegmund plus stow ‘place’; a variant form is Plimsaul.  Count me as another Yank who knows plimsoll only from UK usage (and that very vaguely—I’m not sure I could have told you it was a kind of shoe).

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