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.

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.

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In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, the United States has been examining the place the Confederate flag should have in American culture. Any arguments in favor of it on public grounds are flagging, shall we say. The etymology of the word certainly doesn’t aid the rebel cause.

Put out that flag!
Put out that flag? “Butt.” Felt tip and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been flying flag since the late 15th century. The OED explains that the word is “found in all modern Germanic languages, but apparently first recorded in English.” Its ultimate origin, however, is obscure.

Scholars have unfurled several ideas for the etymology of flag: 

  • Some irises are called “flags” and have sword-shaped leaves. The resemblance between the blade-like shape of these leaves and the form of a flag may have thus given flag its name.
  • Another flag, as in flagstones, is the flat slab used in paving. Again, the shape of these rocks may have inspired our name for cloth flags. The stony flag has Scandinavian roots and is related to English’s flakeflaw, and flay.
  • The noun might also derive from the verb, as to flag is “to hang down” or “flap about loosely,” as the OED defines this word that we’ve extended to mean “to lag” or “to languish.” This verbal flag might come from an earlier adjective, flag, “hanging down.” This flag might flap atop a Latin staff: flaccidus (“drooping”), from flaccus (“flabby”). Or it might be hoisted from the Old Norse flaka, “to flutter” or “to hang loosely,” which Skeat has connected to flaunt.

The answer, my friend, may be blown’ in the wind: Flag might just imitate the sound of a flag flapping in the wind. Flap, whose flappy gives us flabby, also expresses this sound. In fact, English has a great number of fl– phonesthemes that suggest flying, flowing, and sudden motion: flutterflit, fleeflick, flap, and the archaic flack and flacker. And flag? Perhaps the final constant portrays the limpness and looseness of a windless ensign.

Speaking of flick, smokers might do this to a fag they’ve finished smoking. This fag is from the fag-end, or butt, of a cigarette, as a fag is the end part of a piece of cloth, which often hangs down, making it a possible corruption of flag.

Whatever the origin of the word, some flags are simply red flags in need of a color change–white, in this case for surrender.


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