18

To Australians like me "thong" means a kind of sandal such as recently repopularized by the Havaianas brand but we know it means a kind of G-string in other English-speaking parts of the world.

To most English-speaking people in the 21st century it seems "flip flop" (or "flip-flop") is the term for the sandal-like footwear.

But several times I've come across suggestions that "thong" used to be used for this kind of sandal in North America.

  • I'm pretty sure I came across it in the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, written in 1960s New Orleans. But perhaps it was in another American novel from that era.

  • There's this comment on the talk page of the Wiktionary "thong" entry:

    Note: Usage in U.S., particulary Southern California. (Prior to 1980's, perhaps later). Thong is exclusively footware (sandal), not related to undergarments or bathing suits. The usage of thong as G-string (bathing suit or underwear) is post 1980's?

  • Etymonline states that flip-flop meant "thong sandal," by 1972; but for thong states:

    As a kind of sandal, first attested 1965; as a kind of bikini briefs, 1990.

As an amateur etymologist and lexicographer I'm very interested to know:

  • During which years and which parts of North America were flip flops called thongs?
  • Does anybody still call them thongs anywhere in North America?
  • Did flip flops only replace thongs due to the latter term picking up the new sense of G string around the 1980s / 1990s?

Or to put it in a single question, What is the history of the term thong as a kind of sandal in North American English?

  • 1
    Sorry but that's a totally useless n-gram because both terms but especially "flip flop" have various other senses that are also very common. Here's a better Google Ngram that's still not conclusive: books.google.com/ngrams/… – hippietrail Aug 29 '13 at 6:49
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    OED has flip-flop meaning sandal since 1958, and at a quick glance, all five quotations (latest is 1971) are from British use. The flip-flopping sound of a caught trout is 1897. The flip-flop sound of regular footfall is 1661. – Hugo Aug 29 '13 at 7:10
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    I wore flip-flops in the UK, at least in the 1960s. I have always regarded the term as solely referring to a type of sandal with a rubberised plastic base and a toe-piece attached to a V-shaped strap. There may be variations on that - but certainly never an ankle strap: it's the absence of an ankle strap that makes them 'flip-flop' as you walk. It's only recently that I've become aware of them being called thongs by some. To me, a thong would formerly have meant a leather strap, but now also refers to a G-string bikini bottom. – TrevorD Aug 29 '13 at 10:30
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    I would tend to agree with tchrist here: flip-flops and thongs are not quite the same thing to me. The footwear Trevor describes (rubberised plastic plastic and toe-piece attached to a V-shaped strap that goes between first and second toe) are thongs (or beach sandals and similar), while the ones that have a wider strip running from left to right of the foot, but not going between any of the toes, are flip-flops (or bathing/shower sandals and similar). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 29 '13 at 11:29
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    When I was a child in the US in the early 1960s, cheap plastic sandals with the V-strap between the toes became a big hit in discount stores ($1 a pair) and were called flip-flops. – bib Aug 29 '13 at 16:31
13

I grew up in New York (born in Nov 1968) and when I was a child they were called "thongs". In the very late 70s my family moved to Seattle and there they were also called "Thongs". I only became aware of the term "flip-flops" in the late 80s and found it humorous that a g-string would be called a "thong". (I can still recall my adolescent thoughts regarding the idea of comparing butt-cheeks with toes :)

I now live in Germany, so I may be a bit out of touch with some of the current trends.

I find it interesting that "young people" in America today giggle when we "old people" call them "thongs" and they need to "correct" us.

  • Your answer is the most informative because it's based on experience across the US and across the decades and sticks to observation and facts without assumptions. Many of the comments added up bits and pieces of the history but I can't accept a comment as an answer. – hippietrail Oct 13 '13 at 9:53
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    Thank you. I appreciate the feedback. – John M Jun 7 at 17:57
4

I grew up in the Seattle area, 1960s-1970s, and we always called the rubber sandals thongs. I moved to Boston in 1987, and they were called flip-flops, there. When I returned to Seattle in '92, I started hearing flip-flop, and now I never say thong other than around family members who know what I'm talking about.

3

In the 1960s and early 1970s in the New York metropolitan area, people did refer to the shoes as thongs. It was from the early to mid-1970s that the transition to the term "flip-flops" started to take hold, with thong becoming the term for a bikini bottom with minimal covering over the derrière area.

  • 1
    Welcome to English SE! Any chance you could add some sources to back up your answer? – starsplusplus Jun 23 '14 at 15:45
3

I grew up in Los Angeles in the '80s and we referred to them as thongs. My experience is that flip-flops displaced the word thongs when the underwear became popular in the '90s.

2

Thong is still used. So is flip flop and sometimes just sandal. We know that.

Thong has been used less because when we hear the word (at least in my part of America) we think underwear not sandals. So I believe the term flip-flop is just more accurate from a marketing point of view. If I am paying big bucks to market my new sandal line, I don't want some of my market base thinking I am pushing underwear. And then through all of the advertising the common term we use changes.

  • However this totally opens up some company in a few years to build their whole marketing theme around using the word thong to differentiate them from competitors. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 5 '13 at 16:28
1

According to the Random House Dictionary, the word thong has occupied a place in English since the year 950.

It is speculated that the Old Norse word thvengr found its way into Middle English and Old English as thwong. Thwong meant "strap".

For several centuries, and continuing to this day, thong has meant a strip of material, especially of leather or hide. This may be used to fasten or secure something, or for whipping.

Or indeed, a shoe or slipper fastened to the foot chiefly by a strip of leather or other material passing between the first and second toes.

Thong in the sense of footwear is a fairly broad category. The use of the word thong in this sense was already attested in 1965.

I beg to differ with folks who have commented that the footwear under question was always called "flip flops" in the UK and always called thongs in Australia.

With all due respect to the Australians, they have had very little to contribute to the development of English language (this is not a slam...I think it is congruent with the relatively short history of the country). As with most words, they carried over the word thong from home (UK).

The term flip-flop has been used in American and British English since circa 1972 to describe the thong. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=flip-flop

It is an onomatopoeia and is derived from the sound that is made by walking in them.

The use of the word thong to refer to a kind of bikini brief is very recent....and dates back to just the 1990s. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=thong&searchmode=term

Back to the question, thong is now used mainly to refer to the bikini bottoms in America, thanks to the promotion of this usage in media. However, there are small patches of California, where it is occasionally still used to refer to the footwear (though not exclusively to refer to footwear) Samples: http://articles.latimes.com/2006/may/20/entertainment/et-stylenotebook20 Santa Cruz thong

http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/21/entertainment/et-shawn21 One was the soft, thwick-thwack of thong sandals slapping bare feet.

  • 1
    I don't think anybody here ever claimed that Australia invented either the word thong or even added the footwear sense to its other senses. Only that there was no prior term used for this type of footwear in Australia. Also both of the etymonline links were already included in the question so repeating them in the answer isn't adding anything. I am interested in evidence that the footwear sense of thong persists in California, or evidence that is does not persist in other parts of North America. – hippietrail Aug 31 '13 at 15:23
  • I know you didn't say Australia invented "thong"...but in some of the comments you will see people have said that these slippers were "always" called flip-flops in UK and "always" called thongs in Australia. If you check out the links from LATimes circa 2003 and 2006 included in the answer, you'll see evidence that the footwear sense of thong persists in California. – OC2PS Aug 31 '13 at 20:42
  • Thanks for the new links. But I can't see anything but a non sequitur. If you don't feel that they were always called flip flops in the UK and always called thongs in Australia you haven't shown those claims to be untrue. You'd have to tell us the former terms in those places. "Always in Australia" does not imply "before America" etc. The "very little to contribute" paragraph is a straw man argument that I don't get at all. – hippietrail Sep 1 '13 at 2:38
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    The 2 LATimes links clearly demonstrate that as late as 2006 thong was used in CA in the footwear sense. (Santa Cruz thong, if you aren't aware, is a type of elaborate flip flop) – OC2PS Sep 1 '13 at 7:57
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    As an American, I am absolutely baffled by the idea that Australians have no contribution to the English language. Why must Australia's contribution cease in 1780 and yet America can still show its influence in 1970? I don't even have words for such foolery. – horatio Sep 5 '13 at 17:22
0

From an older Jamaican, now a UK resident: (1). Thong because it looks like a strip of leather (a thong) from the sole and up between the toes before splitting into the 'V' shape. Likewise the lower half of a bikini looks like just a thin piece of 'material' (thong-like) and not an all embracing fabric to co cover the female 'frontage' and nowhere near enough to cover the derriere.

(2). Noisy flip-flops were bad enough... and I'm sure some people wore them to say, "Notice me!" Here in the UK, saw a 2" high 'heeled' version being worn by a woman which made a variation of the same old din.

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    Welcome to EL&U. This is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and your response does not answer the question, which is about the usage of flip flop in the U.S. and Canada. I encourage you to visit the help center for guidance. – choster Sep 12 '14 at 3:41
0

I would love to add to this thread as a Canadian I grew up on the west coast and only ever knew the term thong for the rubber sandal type thing everyone is describing, g-string for underwear.

I left for Australia in 1999 where the same footwear was called a thong. However, I have returned to Canada after 13 years away to discover that my lifelong friends choke when I say I'm wearing my thongs today. Most of them can't even remember the term thong for footwear (which I find bizarre) but there are a handful of people who do remember -and this has kept me hopeful that I'm not losing my mind! Lol

I don't like the sound of "flip flop" I think it sounds ridiculous so I continue to use thong as it always was used and STILL is used in the sane parts of the world!! People gasp, stare wide eyed the teenagers laugh... Good on them, they can use flippity floppety to describe their shoes, I'm not a sheep :-)

protected by tchrist Oct 30 '14 at 6:03

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