February 2, 2011

What does "shoo-in" mean?

Someone had said to me, a few weeks ago, that the Patriots might as well mark their names on the trophy, because they were so obviously favored to win the Super bowl, to which someone else responded "they're a shoo-in".

I took this to mean that it was a given that the Patriots will win (no longer a live possibility), and that the term "shoo-in" is used to describe someone or something who is a surefire bet to win a competitive event.

Just a few days ago, I misspelled the term as "shoe-in," and I imagined it should evoke an image of a shoe brushing something in a certain direction, probably past a certain line, or into a goal. Hyphenated words, when made up of two real words, are not marked as misspelled, but, although I had used the term, I later had the impression that I did not know the meaning of what I had written.

A quick internet search leads to many conflicting opinions about the spelling of the phrase. Some would say "shew-in" or "shoo-in." Someone said that the proper spelling is "shoe-in" because "it just makes sense to me." Bullshit.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED, as we learned to call it in college), traces "shoo-in" back to 1928, when it was used to refer to a fixed horse race. Following that usage, "shoo-in" refers to a horse that is going to win a fixed race.

Though intuitively meaningful, the phrase that "the Patriots are a shoo-in" is infelicitous, unless the speaker means to say that the Patriots will win by underhanded means. The Patriots, though the failed, would have had no relationship with a "shoo-in", because at no point were they supposed to win by someone fixing the game.

The OED gives little history for this incarnation of the term. One which appears closer to current use simply means "A certain or easy winner; a certainty, a 'walk-over'." Now I had never used the term "walk-over," so it can't well be used to elucidate any term, let alone "shoo-in," in my native vocabulary, but perhaps its history will shed some light on the term in question.

The OED's most salient entry is about "walkover." Now a 'walkover' is quite different from a 'shoo-in'. A walkover is someone who, as in a foot race, because of a general lack of competitors, needs only to walk over the line in order to win. "Walkover" refers only to some competitor who will easily win, but not because she is unbeatable, but because there is no qualified competition.

On the contrary, a "shoo-in" is someone who might win through foul play. On the account of the OED, the shoo-in is not guaranteed to win, but if he does, it is because of a shoo-in, namely a fixing of the match. The secondary usage involves something equivocal.

In particular, the present day usage of "shoo-in" does not distinguish between winners who win because they're overpowering and winners who win because they've been fated to win by the relevant gamblers. Perhaps those who use the term don't know what they're saying, or perhaps they know enough that we shouldn't bet against them.

8 Comments:

Blogger Chase Purdy said...

Cool post. I love stuff like this.

Tony and I often find ourselves using cliche phrases only to pause after each statement to add, "whatever that's supposed to mean."

I think this is a good example.

February 2, 2011 at 9:12 PM 
Blogger oatess said...

I cannot overestimate the force behind my "bullshit."

In polite company, one does not become involved in mere linguistic issues like these.

I want to writhe my head and hit things when I hear that someone can say that "shoe-in" must mean "shoo-in" just because we've always thought that that's what it meant.

February 3, 2011 at 12:23 AM 
Blogger K. Harvey said...

"Shoo fly, don't bother me" always caused me to assume "shoo-in" meant hurrying flies into an open screen door, as in, to get them in quickly before anyone sees.

Interestingly, I've been reading Shakespeare for class and discovering all sorts of common English curses beginning with "'Ods," apparently an abbreviation for "God's." As in, "Od's fish," meaning, the fish and loaves to feed the five thousand.

So grad school's worth it after all.

February 3, 2011 at 11:48 AM 
Blogger Daniel Silliman said...

I don't think the history about fixed horse races necessarily means the term "shoo-in" implies something underhanded going on. Any more than "they're a lock to win" or "the game's a lock for the Patriots" should imply more than metaphorical bondage.

Merriam Websters says "to shoo" means to chase, esp. an unwanted animal.

I like "shew" too though. The same idea, kind of, that there's some sort force external to the game that guarentee's one side's success, except more polite.

February 5, 2011 at 10:04 AM 
Blogger oatess said...

Well of course someone who says "they're a shoo-in" doesn't necessarily mean that something underhanded is going on.

The term isn't used that way any more.

I was trying to bring the usage of the term up to date.

I guess I didn't accomplish that.

February 5, 2011 at 1:15 PM 
Blogger oatess said...

In any case, they'll say you misspelled it if you say "Shew-in", but "shoo-in" is A-OK.

February 5, 2011 at 1:16 PM 
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