Street culture uses the term 'kicks' to describe sneakers/athletic shoes. I've been using this term for as long as I can remember so I'm comfortable with it's meaning however, as I'm sure I could make an educated guess in terms of the origins of the slang 'kicks', I'm quite curious to learn the authentic origin. I've tried researching online and while I've found the definition countless times, it seems that the back story is scarce. This site is my last stop so fingers crossed, one or more of you have the information I'm looking for. Thanx in advance :)

  • There's some discussion of this on Wordreference. It doesn't pin down an origin, but it agrees with my intuition that this is recent slang confined mainly to teens and twentysomethings. Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 23:56
  • @BraddSzonye: Kicks for shoes in general goes back to late 19th century. For trainers/sneakers, it goes back to at least the 1980s. See my answer.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 6:00
  • And here I thought it was coined by Foster the People. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 18:14

4 Answers 4


Kicks for shoes in general is at least 19th century. It appears to have come from hobo slang (circa 1900s - 1930s), via jazz slang (1920s - 1960s) into African-American slang (1960s -) and from there to more mainstream use, and became used specifically for sneakers/trainers/athletic shoes when these were the most fashionable shoes.

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) says kicks meaning shoes is US from 1897, but has no quotations.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1904:

1904 ‘No. 1500’ Life in Sing Sing 250/1 Kicks, shoes.

The OED has a pair of 1930s quotations from tramps' slang, followed by John Henrik Clarke's Harlem U.S.A. the story of a city within a city (1964) and a 1973 Black world magazine.

A Jazz Lexicon (1964) by Robert S. Gold says:

kicks, n. pl. i. [from hobo slang: cf. 1930 American Tramp and Underworld Slang, s.v. kicks: "shoes, those things with which a kick is delivered"; current among jazzmen since c. 1925] See 1959 quot. —1958 Somewhere There's Music, p. 101. "She bought me these kicks," he said and held up a foot. — 1959 Swinging Syllables, s.v. kicks: shoes.

The Literary Digest for August 25, 1917 (page 47, Hathitrust) published a letter, dated July 2, from a violin player who had joined the army:

The shoes are great; you can never know what it is to be comfortable in shoes until you get into army “kicks." They _issue us two kinds, hobnails, or field shoes, and marching shoes, which are just plain, strong, tan shoes.

A snippet of page 159 of The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip Hop (Pluto Press, 1984) by David Toop gives a rough idea of when and how it was specifically applied to sneakers:

kicks: synonymous with sneakers, which are the last word in footwear. Pumas and Nikes are the current favourites. Example: 'I gotta get me some new kicks to wear to the Funhouse Saturday,' The Funhouse, by the way, is a popular disco with with this crowd.


In Irish author James Joyce's Ulysses, written early in the 20th century, there is a reference to a character's shoes as "kicks" in chapter 10:

In Grafton street Master Dignam saw a red flower in a toff’s mouth and a swell pair of kicks on him and he listening to what the drunk was telling him and grinning all the time.

So the term may have been familiar in Ireland at least that far back, or Joyce could have used the term without realizing there was a precedent.

  • Good find, and good answer! The answer would be even better if you could find the actual quote and edit your answer to share it with us. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 18:00

Kicks just means any kind of laced shoes, though it is often used for basketball type sneakers, and sometimes reserved for new shoes. It's not known where the slang term originated

  • 2
    It is known: the US, late 19th century, amongst hobos. See my answer.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 5:53

Might also have evolved from the expression "kick off your shoes" a common expression which pretty well describes taking your shoes off, often WITHOUT using your hands: literally kicking them off. Therefore the shoes are "kicks", something that you kick off.

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