Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition Copyright © 2013 by the Philip Lief Group.

WORD ORIGIN

1907 (from 1903 as a French word in English), from French sabotage, from saboter "to sabotage, bungle," literally "walk noisily," from sabot "wooden shoe" (13c.), altered (by association with Old French bot "boot") from Middle French savate "old shoe," from an unidentified source that also produced similar words in Old Provençal, Portuguese, Spanish (zapata), Italian (ciabatta), Arabic (sabbat), and Basque (zapata).

In French, and at first in English, the sense of "deliberately and maliciously destroying property" originally was in reference to labor disputes, but the oft-repeated story (as old as the record of the word in English) that the modern meaning derives from strikers' supposed tactic of throwing shoes into machinery is not supported by the etymology. Likely it was not meant as a literal image; the word was used in French in a variety of "bungling" senses, such as "to play a piece of music badly." This, too, was the explanation given in some early usages.