Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Good Podcast, Gumshoe


Audio Transcript:

It’s Mike. I was just gabbing recently about how I should probably start covering words and phrases that are trending right now in popular media. “What a great way to get the word out about Get the Word!”, I thought to myself. People are already hearing a word or phrase being used all the time right now, so they will be more interested in learning about the origin and history of that word or phrase specifically. A great idea indeed. It would be a great thing to do, sure.

Instead, I’m going to talk about a word that I never really hear anybody say anymore. Gumshoe. Just as popular today as saying moving picture for ‘movie’ or putting a hyphen between the words ‘to’ and ‘morrow’.

So, in other words, I’m a pretty hep cat down with the latest jive talk.

Gumshoe does refer to a shoe. At least at first it did. A shoe with a gum, or rubber, sole. However, the definition of gumshoe we have today in the dictionary refers to a detective; a private eye; a dick. So let’s start with the shoe and then work our way up to the connection with detectives.

First, let’s figure out when we first started seeing the word gum shoe pop up in the language. It appears that the terms gum shoe and rubber shoe both pop up in use in the mid 19th century. In that century we would see all sorts of innovations in footwear centered around the use of rubber. The word rubber existed before the 19th century, but, according to Oxford, the word went from being one to describe something that you would use to clean or erase something else to a broader use of the term to describe anything made from a rubber substance at around the time we started to see the terms gum shoe and rubber shoe, in the mid 19th century. ‘Gum’ or ‘gum elastic’ is another name for rubber. It can be made synthetically or or it can come from the milky juice, or latex, of rubber trees and plants.

There were many shoe innovations in the 19th century. In the 1830s we saw the rise of a shoe made with a canvas upper and a rubber sole that was originally intended to be used on the beach. The credit for this type of shoe, which would eventually be known as a plimsoll by the 1870s, is given to the Liverpool Rubber Company over in the UK. The term plimsoll or plimsole is still listed as a synonym of a rubber soled canvas shoe in many dictionaries and is most likely referencing a shoe named after a Plimsoll line or Plimsoll mark, which is the marking on a ship’s side that shows the legal limit of submersion for the ship, sometimes known as the international load line. The shoe was was believed to resemble a plimsoll line on a ship, perhaps because of the clear demarcation between the canvas and rubber sole.

A plimsoll mark indicates the maximum depth a vessel is allowed to reach when loaded with cargo. I’m sure you’ve seen it. I’ll include a picture of one on the website, This plimsoll line is sometimes known as a vessels waterline or the international load line, and is named after an English politician, Samuel Plimsoll who helped put an end to the bad idea of sending overloaded ships out to sea. I’ve never heard this term referring to a shoe before, but with its connections to UK history perhaps it is still being used over there. Anyone in the UK write in to the podcast, getthewordpodcast@gmail.coms and let us know if you ever use the term plimsoll to refer to a rubber and canvas shoe.

Anyway, we’re getting too off track here. So we see the rise of rubber shoes in the 19th century. In that same century we also see the inventor and engineer Charles Goodyear receive a patent for vulcanized rubber and inventors like Humphrey O’Sullivan, the first to patent a rubber heel for shoes toward the end of the century and also Elijah McCoy who helped to further improve upon the rubber heel.

So what’s the big deal about rubber shoes? or gum shoes? What do they have to do with detectives? Well, think about this, a private eye needs to be sneaky, right? They need to be able to sneak around as quietly as possible.

You don’t want squeaky shoes when you’re trying to be stealthy.

Let’s compare. Certain other types of shoes can be pretty squeaky, like leather shoes.

Here’s a leather shoe. Here’s a gum shoe. Leather shoe. Gum shoe.

One source traces the term gumshoe for describing a detective to the year 1906 (etymonline). Merriam Webster gives us the dates 1913 for the first known use of ‘gumshoe’ to describe a detective, as a noun, and 1930 as the first known use of ‘gumshoe’ to describe a verb, the action of being a detective, as in, “wow, Phillip was really gumshoeing it up yesterday”.

According to Jonathon Green, well known lexicographer and author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, we can trace gumshoe to describe a person or the actions of said person a bit farther back than the dates I just mentioned. Let’s see what he’s dug up and then I’ll get to what I’ve found in my own research looking at primary sources.

Mr. Green points us to several books. He first sends us to 1902 in C.L. Cullen’s More Ex-Tank Tales with the line in that book being “I thought you were a daylight gum-shoer for a minute.”… and according to Green, this was actually in reference to a thief, not a detective. Well, I suppose thieves need to sneak around in quiet shoes as well. Ninjas too.

Our second source brings us to 1904, the book Little Citizens : The Humours of School Life by Myra Kelly, described as “Immigrant children in a New York City school, pictured in a series of short stories." The earliest publication date I could find in my research as well is certainly 1904. Green tells us that in this book we meet the dreaded ‘Gum Shoe Tim’, this time, ‘gum shoe’ being two separate words. Gum Shoe Tim was known as such due to his way of “creeping softly up back stairs and appearing all unheralded and unwelcome, upon the threshold of his intended victim”.

So what we can gather from Jonathon Green’s research is that early use of gumshoe to describe a person did not always describe a detective, at least in its early uses around the turn of the 20th century. Green also believes that the verb use arrived right around the turn of the century as well, either referring to a detective doing detective-like things or just as a verb meaning ‘to creep around’. He tells us that it was also even used to mean nothing more than ‘to walk’ or ‘to stroll’, believe it or not. That begs the question, can a pedestrian squeaking up a storm with their leather shoes still be an example of something ‘gumshoeing’ through the streets?

After the break, we’ll see what we can dig up using Ngram to track the use of the term in print. Don’t go away!

— Break —

Let’s get to what Ngram shows us, which traces the use of words and phrases in print dating all the way back to the year 1500. There was an initial spike in use around the middle of the 19th century of the words ‘gum’ ‘shoe’, as two separate words. Most of these printed sources do seem to refer to shoes. That makes sense.

And then we get to the 20th century.

The Clinical Reporter from June 1903, which appears to have been released to the public by the “Homoeopathic Medical College of Missouri” uses ‘gumshoe’ as a descriptor: “… the question of alum (sp) in our baking powder and drinking water will not be left to the chicanery of “Gum-shoe” politicians and boodling (sp) legislators but all food products and provisions necessary to the comfort of our bodies will be protected by proper laws administered by medical boards, and plague and pestilence will no longer stalk through the land unmolested”. This is most assuredly in reference to ‘Gum Shoe’ Bill Stone, US Senator from Missouri serving in office from the years 1903 to 1918, a politician who seems to have gotten the nickname gumshoe from his hands-on role in investigating criminal cases. Bill Stone was a good gumshoe, or detective. However, in subsequent use, in reference to ‘gumshoe’ politicians, it isn’t as clear whether this descriptor describes a politician who is good at detective work or if it describes a politician whose political methods mirror those of Mr. Gum Shoe Bill Stone. This medical journal would not be the only source to reference ‘gumshoe’ politics. La Follette’s Weekly Magazine dated June 17th, 1911 describes Stone as Missouri’s ‘gumshoe’ statesman in an article that seems to describe Stone as the type of politician who likes to ‘hide the shells’. I’ll explain. This magazine, as well as a New York Times article from the same decade, several years later, in 1917, both mention a very quotable quote from one of Stone’s political associates summing up Stone’s methods: “We both suck eggs, but Stone hides the shells!”. I’d like to bring back the term ‘gumshoe politician’ to describe those politicians who ‘hide the shells’. That’s pretty great in my opinion.

Past the turn of the century though it seems that gumshoe started to refer more and more to detectives and detective work specifically. However, perhaps you’ve been using the word to refer to a thief, or a pedestrian, or to describe a politician who sucks eggs but hides the shells. Write in to the podcast to tell us about your less common uses for ‘gumshoe’.

In case you were wondering, the peak in popularity in print for gum-shoe and gum shoe appears to be in the nineteen-teens. Using gumshoe as all one word was also pretty popular in the first couple decades of the 20th century. And then we see a shift. The word gumshoe, as one word, no hyphen, becomes the predominantly used spelling into the 1940s. An anomalous jump in popularity of the term in print appears to happen in 1972, most likely due to the release of the black comedy entitled Gumshoe, released right at the tale end of 1971. The movie features Albert Finney as a club comedian who dreams of being a private eye, and is set in Liverpool, the famous English city noted for its culture, architecture, transport links, its association with the Beatles, and, of course, we mustn’t forget the Liverpool Rubber Company we mentioned earlier in the episode. It all comes around full circle. Perhaps there’s a connection in the film. I’ll try to track down the film and get back to you on that.

The term gumshoe doesn’t appear to have been very popular in use in the past half a decade or so, however, its popularity has never really waned. It’s fun to say… gumshoe… and seems to be a favorite word among fiction writers as well. There was a spike in popularity in print in 2015, as well as 2008 and 2004, 2000 and 1990. The term is imprinted on my mind from the 1990s PBS kids show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which was based on a popular computer game at the time.

What tidbit of popular media comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘gumshoe’? Write in to the podcast and share your thoughts.

— Fact Cabinet —

Ooh, pardon me, gumshoes. I need to oil that hinge on the Fact Cabinet. Let’s see what we can find today, shall we? Here’s my pair of medieval pointy shoes. You know, those really pointy looking shoes you can see in old European paintings? Shout out to Atlas Obscura, and to the podcast Ridiculous History who both did recent pieces on Medieval Europe’s weird obsession with pointy shoes. Afterwards I had to go out and buy a pair of my own.

These weird impractical shoes, extending far beyond the toes of the wearer, often known as Krakow shoes, or ‘poulaine’ [poo-LEYN] shoes, were popular for hundreds of years in Europe, reaching their most exaggerated pointiness in about the third quarter of the 15th century before quickly falling out of fashion. The Krakow, or poulaine shoe is so named because the style is believed to have originated in Krak√≥w, Poland. The term poulaine also refers to Poland; it roughly translates to ‘Poland’ in Middle French. Not to be confused with poutine, the delicious Canadian dish of French fries and cheese curds and gravy.

One theory for this period of strange footwear flamboyance is posited in the Atlas Obscura article by Jackie Keily, senior curator at the Museum of London. To quote the article: “Perhaps the best explanation for this confounding flamboyance is that the shoes emerged soon after the Black Death killed 30 to 60 percent of the population of Europe. “It may have been a reaction to a type of austerity,” Keily says. “The plague left a landscape with a lot of people who had lost close family members, a generation of mourning. Suddenly there were less people who had more money to spend on clothing.” So poulaines may have been a kind of retail therapy for coping with the surprise disappearance of 25 million people”. But, as we like to say here on the podcast, a certain amount of details are inevitably lost to history. Until human beings invent time travel.

Here’s another odd shoe fact, according to a ThoughtCo article I took from earlier, before the 19th century there was no difference between right and left shoes! The article claims it was French shoemakers who came up with the idea of placing little labels on the insoles of shoes. Another article claims that the first pair with a distinction between left and right came from Philadelphia, here in the States. Another source tells us that “as late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe”. A ‘last’ is a shoemaker's model for shaping or repairing a shoe or boot. Perhaps tracking down the first pair of shoes to differentiate left and right is a bit tricky, but it’s safe to assume that many people didn’t bother to differentiate until relatively recent human history!

Before we end I’d like to read a comment left on the website,, where you can find the audio transcripts of Get the Word! “Really enjoyed this podcast! A teaching method that actually takes a journey. Brilliant!!!!! - Unknown - Get the Word! “

Comments like this keep me motivated to continue these podcast episodes. Make sure to write in yourself if you feel inclined.


Shouts out: @MisterSlang ; etymonline (FACEBOOK: @etymonline ) ; merriam webster @OfficialALW ; Stephen Frears (director) ; Neville Smith (writer); Carmen Sandiego; Atlas Obscura; Ridiculous History; Jackie Keily

Show notes: s

Carlson, I. Marc (2001). "Medieval European Long Toed Shoes". Footwear of The Middle Ages.

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center:

And Kevin Macleod

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches:


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