Race, sex, and underwear: the debated origins of “shimmy”

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave us plenty to talk about, including a number of words themselves: stamina, cyber, temperament, braggadocious, and, thanks to some since-viral shoulder shaking from Clinton, shimmy.

After a Trumpian word salad late in the debate, Clinton issued a “Whoo! OK!” accompanied by a wide grin and a shoulder shimmy. Her shimmy served as a playful, though pointed, dismissal of Trump’s charges. But the etymological – and cultural – past of the word shimmy is much more complicated.

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Some Americans may have called this chemise, made from cotton ca. 1856, a “shimmy.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

A not so shimmering history?

The shimmy originated as a jazz dance involving a spirited shaking of the body, often while doing a foxtrot. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of it in 1917 as the shimme-sha-wabble. It next records it in a 1918 edition of the British Dancing Times, which described it as a “very, very crude” dance, a “n–r dance, of course, and it appears to be a slow walk with a frequent twitching of the shoulders” (censoring mine). And as a 1922 reference in the London Weekly Dispatch reminds us, the shimmy  was often prohibited, deemed obscene for its sexual suggestiveness: “‘Shimmy’ banned in New York…The Chicago camel-walk, scandal, balconnades, and shimmy dances must cease.” We should remember, too, the dance’s racial associations when it come these bans.

By 1925, shimmy was extended to vibrations in general, though especially to the “wheel wobble” of cars and airplanes.

The origin of shimmy as a word is less clear. It’s often considered to be a US dialectical variant of chemise, mistaken as a plural. (This error, innocent enough, has precedent. Pea was thought to be the singular of pease, cherry of cherise, though both pease and cherise were originally the singular forms of the words.) The shimmy variant dates to the 1830s.

Way back in Old English, a chemise (then, cemes) was a shirt, particularly a kind of undergarment like a smock, used for warmth and sweat absorption. Chemise has also been long associated with lingerie, which adds to the historic raciness of the shimmy dance.

Looks like a shirt, sounds like a shimmer

Now, the history of chemise in English is long and complex, in part coming directly from Latin and in part from French (where the word was also used of book coverings). The ultimate origin is the Latin camisa, a kind of sleeping garment. The ancient Romans may have borrowed the word – and apparently, the garb – from a Germanic word that also shows up in hame, an archaic word for a “covering” or a “skin,” especially a snake’s slough. 

We shouldn’t overlook, though, the role sound symbolism might have played in the origin of shimmy. The dance’s fast, quivering motion no doubt evokes shimmer; shiver, shake, shudder, shatter and other sh– words, in all their speedy trembling, also come to mind. (Linguists refer to these sound-meaning clusters as phonesthemes.) Shimmer itself comes from the same root as shine, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning the same.

For Clinton supporters and meme-makers at least , Clinton’s shimmy made for a lighter and looser – perhaps even shimmering – moment in otherwise tense, heated, and heavy-hitting debate.

m ∫ r ∫

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5 thoughts on “Race, sex, and underwear: the debated origins of “shimmy”

  1. Welsh has the old words “camse” and “hefys”, both earliest examples from the 14th century for a woman’s under-garment, shift, chemise etc. The dictionary suggests that they are both related to Late Latin “camisia” and states that Welsh ‘camse’ is a loan from Old Irish “caimmse” although only lists further ‘chemise’ examples for ‘hefys’ in the Brythonic sister languages ie. Old Cornish “heuis”, Middle Cornish “hevys”, Breton “hiviz, hiñviz”.
    I wonder if there is semantic relationship with ‘chemise’ and Ancient Greek κάμμαρος ‎(kámmaros) and its supposed Germanic cognates: Danish “hummer”, Old Norse “humarr” ‎(“lobster”) etc?

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    1. The connection between “chemise” and “kammaros” the sense of an outer covering, a shell, as we see in “hame”? Also, if I recall correctly from my research, the Celtic cognates were loaned from Old English?

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