Anarchist Rudolf Rocker tells us that the term “sabotage” comes from “sabot, wooden shoe, and means to work clumsily as if by sabot blows.” [Rocker: 85] I never put much thought into sabotage, but found this origin to be interesting. What is a “sabot blow”? Getting hit by a wooden shoe? I had to learn more.
The standard collegiate dictionary with a basic etymology will reveal that the origin is, indeed, related to wooden shoes. “Sabotage” is French in origin, from the word saboter, meaning “to clatter with sabots” or “botch”. Does “clatter with sabots” mean to walk noisily in wooden shoes? That differs quite a bit from being hit by them. Sabotage first appeared in English in 1910, though where and how is unknown to me.
In French, the sense of “deliberately and maliciously destroying property” originally was in reference to labor disputes, but the oft-repeated story that the modern meaning derives from strikers’ supposed tactic of throwing old shoes into machinery — perhaps what Rocker meant by “sabot blows” — is not supported by the etymology. Likely it was not meant as a literal image; the word was used in French in a variety of “bungling” senses, such as “to play a piece of music badly.”
From that period onward, sabotage has found a life of its own in English, meaning destructive action to disrupt the intentions of an employer, government or other, often more powerful force. Not long after its inception into English, economist Thorstein Veblen already modified it for his own ends. The verb is first attested 1918 in English, from the noun. Saboteur appeared in 1921, a direct borrowing from the French.
Etymological studies reveal a long history of the word “sabotage” and its roots. Universally it is agreed the term comes from the French saboter, which could mean “to bungle” or literally “walk noisily,” in addition to the translations listed above.
Saboter comes from sabot, “wooden shoe”, around as early as the 13th century.
From there, sabot is an alteration of Middle French’s savate, meaning “old shoe”. The word evolved from meaning “old” to wooden” by way of combining with the Old French bot, meaning “boot”. A sabot, then, is like a shoe but sturdy like a boot.
The word savate comes from an unidentified source that also produced similar words in Old Provençal (a Romance language of the troubadours, spoken in southern France before c. 1500), Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Basque.
Before that, who knows?
Rocker, Rudolf. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice AK Press, 2004.