Catch ya on the flip side

by Mellissa Martinez

The city of San Juan Capistrano recently imposed an ordinance against the wearing of flip-flops in some public parks. Baffled council members and local residents of the southern California beach town are scratching their heads wondering who is responsible for the flip-flop block.

As it turns out, the new rule was recommended by the city’s insurer in an effort to protect the town from liability. Seizing this opportunity for word-lovers, I have uncovered an inventory of potential liabilities related to the casual footwear. As it turns out, ‘flip-flop’ has a surprising history, which includes annoyances, insults and rude relatives.

Since the mid 1500s, the expression ‘flip-flop’ has been used to describe a variety of flapping or banging sounds. According to most language and shoe experts, its use for ‘sandal’ emerged in the late 1960s. Inspired by the slap-slap sound of the rubber shoe hitting the sole of a foot, this onomatopoeic origin can be noted in many other unpleasant English words like grunt, gurgle, gargle, burp, blab and flick. Nowadays, ‘flip-flop’ is an important noun in quarrels and political putdowns, mostly used to characterize second thoughts, about-faces and changes of heart.

The first word of the flip-flop duo, ‘flip,’ is riddled with unsavory associations. As a noun, it appeared in the early 1500s as a contraction of ‘fillip,’ the noise made when flicking a finger. Over the next 100 or so years, the meaning of ‘flip’ expanded to include verbs, ‘turn over quickly,’ and ‘somersault,’ an adjective, ‘glib,’ and another noun, a ‘frothy hot, boozy drink for sailors.’ A disrespectful person is ‘flippant,’ while the less popular, backside, of an album is called the ‘flip side.’ ‘Flipping’ is used as a euphemism for the much more offensive f-adjective, and of course there are the objectionable actions of flipping one’s lid, flipping someone off and flipping the bird.

Flip’s partner, ‘flop,’ doesn’t fare much better. Emerging in the same century, it represents the heavier, duller (more depressing) sound. Although its primary meaning is now ‘complete failure,’ it can also mean ‘fall down suddenly,’ ‘swing loosely’ or ‘unexpectedly decide to sleep at someone’s house.’ Additionally, there is the popular basketball ‘flop,’ where a player purposefully falls hard to the ground to draw an unfair foul against his opponent.

Potentially the most damaging associations for ‘flip-flop’ (and perhaps its undoing in San Juan Capistrano) is its close connection with the word ‘thong.’ In the time of Old English, a ‘thong’ or twong was a narrow strip of leather used as a cord or strip. Just a few years after the emergence of ‘flip-flop,’ ‘thong’ gained popularity as an alternative to ‘sandal.’ It later enjoyed widespread notoriety in the 1990s when it surprisingly picked up a new meaning—the teeny-tiny strip of cloth that passes for underwear in some circles.

Adding to these negative word affiliations, The New York Times recently reported a study showing that wearing flip-flops can result in sore feet, ankles and legs. Apparently, walking in flip-flops alters one’s step, causing problems and pain leading from the foot all the way up to the hips and lower back. What’s surprising is that human beings have been consistently inflicting themselves with flip-flop pain for centuries! There are images of this offending sandal on Egyptian murals dating back to 4000 BCE. The Romans sported this casual footwear in their public arenas and the Japanese wore a similar style, which they brought to America during WWII.

How long should the madness continue? San Juan Capistrano has proven itself to be way ahead of the curve on this one. Not only are officials protecting their citizens from sore feet and unwanted lower back pain, but they are cleaning up the parks by banning all association with skimpy underwear, shifty people, blabs, burps, grunts and complete failures. What more could a small-town resident ask for?


[Editor’s note:?Mellissa Martinez recently left UC Riverside, where she taught ESL, to accept the position of Coordinator of International Student Language Support at Claremont McKenna College. She holds a bachelor’s degree in language studies from UC Santa Cruz and a master’s degree in linguistics from Cal State University, Fullerton. She is a native of Claremont. —KD]



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