When writing about something that is considered to be a sure thing, should that guaranteed outcome be referred to as a shoe-in or shoo-in?
Is it shoe-in or shoo-in? We hear the phrase from time to time, but normally, we hear it more often than we see it, which means when it comes time to actually write it, some of us are left scratching our heads.
Some people might choose “shoe-in” thinking it’s related to another popular idiom, “getting one’s foot in the door.”
One reader told WordDetective.com that her teenager claimed he’d heard that “shoe-in” evolved as a slurring of “sure win.”
It turns out that both explanations, though making some degree of sense, aren’t correct.
Consider this recent headline from Fortune: “Trump Should Be a Shoo-in for 2020, But Low Approval Holds Him Back.”
It’s a shoo-in.
That leads us to the obvious question: Why is it “shoo-in” instead?
To shoo is “to scare, drive, or send away by or as if by crying shoo.” Sometimes, a hand gesture is used to drive off the person or animal.
But while Merriam-Webster says the first known use of the term shoo-in as a “sure thing” dates back to 1937, the aforementioned WordDetective says its origin about a decade older. The phrase came into being in the field of horse racing.
WordDetective quotes the Oxford English Dictionary, which explains the first use of the term in print dates back to 1928 and referred to a horse that was expected to win a horse race. The win was expected, it notes, not because of its speed or endurance but because the race was rigged:
The sardonic “subtext” of the original usage, now lost, was that the designated horse would win even if it were so lackadaisical in its performance that it simply wandered somehow up to the finish line and had to be “shooed in” to victory.
It’s amazing what kind of stories you find behind the words and phrases we use without even thinking about them!