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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This past Sunday, talk show pundits analyzed the latest developments on the 2016 presidential race. Yesterday, runners braved the rain–and memories–to race in the Boston Marathon. Where does this word race come running from?

Wrong way! "Error." Doodle by @andrescalo.
You’re running the wrong way! “Error.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The word race has a lot of legs–and many different meanings over the centuries. In reference to the “act of running,” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to the early 1300s with a sense of a “rush” or “raid.” From here, the word sprinted to signify all sorts of forward progress and movement. The sporting race is first in record by the early 1500s, generalized and extended in meaning over the century. According to the OED, the political race comes later, cited in–and a shout-out to my hometown here–the title of a Cincinnati Literary Gazette tale from 1824: “The Lovers’ Political Race, or a Kentucky Election.” (“A Kentucky election”: That certainly sounds like the punchline to a joke Cincinnatians might say about their neighbors across the river.) You can read the piece here. Like any proper political tale, it’s full of romance, backwoodsmen, electioneering, and whiskey that flows like water.

Which brings us nicely to the origin of race. Etymologists suspect race was adopted from the Scandinavian languages. Old Norse has rāsa “running” or “rush” of water, which English’s own race has signified. Old English has a close cognate, rǣs, a “running” but also an “attack.” These similar sounds and senses likely influenced each other in race‘s early development. Scholars reconstruct them in Proto-Germanic *res-, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *ers-, “to be in motion” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).


A race conjures a concerted speed and effort on a a determined path. (Yes, egg-and-spoon races can get serious.) This is quite unlike its Latin cousin (also descended from *ers-): errāre, “to wander,” “stray,” or “be mistaken about.” Not all forms of motion, I suppose, are onward, forward, and purposeful: Errāre relays errerrorerroneouserratic, and aberration into English. (The French-based errant and arrant may not ultimately come from this Latin verb, but it certainly influenced them when these words were confused with a derivative of the Latin īre, “to go.”) This notion of straying also has feet in other Germanic words but is associated with “anger,” an emotional aberration from the social norm, if you will.

Anger, running, error, attack? It sounds like were talking about a different kind of race too tragically making headlines lately. That race has a different—and largely unknown—origin.

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