Word Stories: Sabotage

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the origin of the word “sabotage”.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. My name’s Stephen Greene and today’s episode is all about the word “sabotage”. I will tell you a story to show the meaning of the word, then explore the origin of “sabotage” and describe how it acquired its modern meaning.

Following this, I’ll look at an alternative word for “sabotage” and discuss the important differences. Finally, I’ll look at how “sabotage” has spread into other languages around the world with some surprising and coincidental results.

So, learn everything you need to know about “sabotage” after this quick break.

A long, long time ago, when I was at university, I joined a group call The Hunt Saboteurs. Two or three times a week, we would go out into the countryside around Nottingham and try to sabotage fox hunts.

Fox hunts are a historical part of life in the countryside in England. People ride horses and encourage their dogs to find, and then kill, foxes. People who take part in fox hunts think there are lots of reasons why fox hunting is a good thing. I disagree with every single one of those reasons and believe it is a barbaric ritual that has no place in modern society.

Because of this belief my group of hunt saboteurs used to try and disrupt the hunt. We made it as difficult as possible for the hunters to organise their dogs, find foxes and kill them. We purposefully did everything we could to sabotage the hunt.

If you look in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary, the definition of “sabotage” is “to damage or destroy equipment, weapons or buildings in order to prevent the success of an enemy or competitor,” which is a good explanation for what we were trying to do when sabotaging the fox hunts.

The word “sabotage” comes originally from French, where it was originally “sabbaton”. A sabaton was a wooden shoe, often used by poor farmers right up until the 20th century. However, while everyone agrees on the origin of the word, nobody is quite sure how the word changed its meaning from a shoe to doing deliberate damage.

There is one common story which I love. However, the story is definitely not true. The story is that when farmers moved to the cities during and after the industrial revolution, they often experienced terrible conditions. As a way of protest, they used to throw their wooden shoes into the machinery they were working on. Much as I love the idea of this story, it is 100% false. Not least because a poor factory or farm worker would not throw away valuable shoes.

The best theory I have found is that when these poor farmworkers came to the city in their wooden shoes, they made a lot of noise. At the same time, they either did not know how to produce good work, or the city people believed they were bad workers, and so accidental bad work was called “sabotage”. There is linguistic evidence to show that this was the original meaning. After a short time, the word changed from “accidental” to “deliberate”. And so sabotage arrived at its modern meaning.

There was a group in Britain in the 19th century called the Luddites. This group of people opposed the use of machinery because they were afraid machines would make workers redundant. They really did go around breaking machinery in factories so that people could do the work instead. We still use the word “luddites” today, but now it refers to anyone who is afraid of, or doesn’t understand, modern technology.

The French word sabbotin can be found in other languages. For example, in Italian it gives us ciabatta, which literally means a soft slipper or shoe you can wear in the house. However, if you go into a bakery you will often see a ciabatta as a type of bread used in toasted sandwiches.

My favourite use of the word, though is in Spanish, where It becomes Zapata. Again, it means shoe, but over time it also became a person’s surname and showed that they or their ancestors were shoemakers. The reason this is my favourite is that during the Mexican Revolution one of the most famous leaders was Emiliano Zapata who quite literally used sabotage as one of his strategies against the Mexican government at the time. This name is also the source of the much later Zapatista Uprising among indigenous people in Mexico.

And it isn’t just in the area of politics and revolution that the word “sabotage” lives on. The Beastie Boys have a great song called Sabotage and Black Sabbath, the great heavy metal band that comes from my area of England, had a whole album called Sabotage in 1975. They gave the album this name because they were arguing with their former manage and they accused him of trying to sabotage the band.

That’s about all from me for today. I hope this episode helps you with your English learning as the last thing I want is to sabotage your studies.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave me a 5-star rating on your podcast app. Better still is if you can write a quick review. It really does help other people to discover the podcast and, hopefully, help them to improve their English.

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Now it is your turn. Tell me about a time when you have saboataged something. Or tell me a story about a famous time in your country’s history when sabotage was a problem. You can tell me on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, or on my Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter accounts. Just look for English with Stephen.

Thanks for listening. I look forward to talking you again next week.

Bye for now!

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