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There's a type of shoe which I, being Irish, would call runners. They're comfortable for running or walking in.

The British call them trainers, probably because they can be used for sports or training.

The Americans, meanwhile, call them sneakers, presumably because, being soft-soled, they're suitable for sneaking around in.

What are the actual sources of these words, and what words are used in other English-speaking areas, such as Australia and South Africa?

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You are forgetting "gutties" are you not? –  Brad May 1 '12 at 22:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

@Callithumpian has given a nice representation of the words usage in America.

What are the actual sources of these words, and what words are used in other English-speaking areas, such as Australia and South Africa?

All of these words actually just refer to the "sports shoe" or "atheletic shoe"

Here are their origins:

The British English term "trainer" derives from "training shoe." There is evidence[2] that this usage of "trainer" originated as a genericized tradename for a make of training shoe made in 1968 by Gola...

This is "sneaker":

In the 1800s, a London police officer developed a rubber-soled shoe in order to catch criminals in the act quietly. He called his invention "sneakers". The name derived from the fact that the rubber soles of the shoes made them noiseless. The term "sneaker" was also used in 1887 by Boston Journal of Education:
“It is only the harassed schoolmaster who can fully appreciate the pertinency of the name boys give to tennis shoes — sneakers.”

In other countries, they're also called:

They are also known as trainers (British English), sandshoes, gym boots or joggers (Australian English), running shoes, runners or gutties (Canadian English, Australian English, Hiberno-English), sneakers, tennis shoes (North American English, Australian English), gym shoes, tennies, sports shoes, sneaks, tackies[1] (South African English and Hiberno-English), rubber shoes (Philippine English) or canvers (Nigerian English).

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We Canadians will admit to a lot of oddness, but the use of gutties to describe this class of footwear is something even we would consider beyond the pale. Running shoes and runners are common here, but gutties? Not even in Newf'n'land, b'y. –  bye Jul 3 '11 at 22:16
    
I've never heard of gutties before. –  TRiG Jul 5 '11 at 10:03
    
Yahoo!! Now you have! –  Thursagen Jul 5 '11 at 10:05
    
TRIG, here's an Irish definition of "gutties": Gutties is gowf baws or wee saft shuin that's maistly worn by weans at the schuil. –  Thursagen Jul 5 '11 at 10:06

Here's a geographic breakdown of names for the shoe in the U.S. from the Harvard Dialect Survey (note that tennis shoes is a close second to sneakers):

http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_73.html

And here are the results of the same question asked for a Survey of English in the British Isles:

enter image description here

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There could be a problem here: the rubber-soled shoes worn in gym class (at least in England) are not the same as the casual/athletic shoes usually called 'trainers'. The former are called plimsolls or gym shoes, and are very much less substantial. OP clearly does not refer to these, but the two surveys may well do. –  TimLymington Jul 4 '11 at 15:14
    
@Tim: Looking in this wikipedia entry at the "traditional school plimsolls", Americans do not wear anything like this to gym class. Any kind of rubber-soled athletic shoe is permitted—and I think you would call what most Americans wear in gym class "trainers". –  Peter Shor Feb 17 at 22:25
    
TimLymington, people in England and the rest of the UK don't normally talk of a "gym class". In schools, it is called PE dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/pe?q=PE –  Tristan r Feb 17 at 22:36
    
I agree with the map. In my part of the US, they are more likely tennis shoes than sneakers, though both are used. –  GEdgar Feb 17 at 22:49
    
Since moving to Yorkshire, I have discovered that plimsolls are called pumps here. –  Colin Fine Feb 17 at 23:07

I'm from Scotland and here "trainers" are low, flat, rubber-soled shoes (like converse or vans). Shoes for sports are usually just called "trainers" too but also "running shoes" or "court shoes" if used for an indoor sport such as volleyball or badminton. "Plimsoles" (rubber-soled shoes that wee kids would wear to PE (or gym class)) are called "gym shoes" and "pumps" are flat shoes with open tops usually made of leather or fabric.

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I've lived in UK and US. UK "trainer" = US "sneaker". UK "plimsoll" = ? - they are usually worn indoors by small children for gym-based sport. I've not seen them used in US.

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First, welcome to the site. Second, there are plenty of new questions where an answer like this might be good enough. But this is an old question that asked for actual sources and seems just as well-informed as the answer here, I'm downvoting it. –  virmaior Feb 18 at 1:06

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