Self-portrait in gray
In Korea, people distinguish a slipper and a sandal based on how it attaches to your foot. A slipper is secured the foot by a strap running over (or between) the toes or instep. Sandals fasten to the ankle. I was told slippers slip on your feet hence the name.
Before coming to Korea, I had never distinguished slippers and sandals in this way. To me, slippers are light, low-cut shoes worn in the house. Sandals are worn outdoors. How they fasten to the foot is inconsequential.
This seemingly meaningless distinction comes into play when you ask a Korean-educated English speaker, “Are you going to wear your sandals outside?” They might respond, “No, I’m going to wear my slippers.” He or she will have looked at the shoes in question, recognized they do not fasten at the ankle, and made a logical correction. For me this simply creates cognitive dissonance: “If you are wearing them outside, they are sandals.”
Still abnormal life
This distinction is so prevalent in Korea; I started to wonder if all fifth grade public school teachers throughout the country required their students to memorize the same dialogue on the false distinction between slippers and sandals in some shoddy standardized English textbook. The reaction among Koreas to the slipper/sandal mix-up was rote and uniform: “No, that’s not a sandal it’s a slipper.” “No that’s not a slipper, it’s a sandal.”
Only later, I wondered if the fastidious textbook designers had it right. There was a distinction between sandals and slippers based on how they fastened to the foot. I was just never taught it during my shoddy American public school education.
So I looked in the dictionary. Bartleby.com’s dictionary defines a slipper
as “A low shoe that can be slipped on and off easily and usually worn indoors.” It contains the following definition for sandal
1.A shoe consisting of a sole fastened to the foot by thongs or straps.
2.A low-cut shoe fastened to the foot by an ankle strap.
3.A rubber overshoe cut very low and covering little more than the sole of the shoe.
4.A strap or band for fastening a low shoe or slipper on the foot.
Okay, maybe there is something to this slipper/sandal distinction. Although, it’s highly ambiguous. The slipper definition says nothing about how the shoe fastens to the foot. But, slipping on and off probably precludes an ankle strap. However, the definition does say slippers are usually worn in the house. The first definition of sandals says nothing about how the shoe fastens to the foot. Presumably, it could consist of one strap over the instep and still qualify under the first definition of sandal. However, the second definition clearly states a sandal must fasten to the ankle. Let’s keep looking.
dictionary defines slipper as “a light low-cut shoe that is easily slipped on the foot.” Again, nothing about how the slipper fits on the foot, although presumably not with an ankle strap if it can be slipped on. It does not mention where it is usually worn. Merriam-Webster contains the following four definitions for sandal:
1.A shoe consisting of a sole strapped to the foot
2.A low-cut shoe that fastens by an ankle strap
3.A strap to hold on a slipper or low shoe
4.A rubber overshoe cut very low
Again with the ankle strap.
Finally, Encyclopedia Britannica does not contain an entry for slipper
. However, it defines a sandal
as “a type of footwear consisting of a sole secured to the foot by straps over the instep, toes, or ankle.” Interesting. According to this definition sandals can fasten at any of three places on the foot. They do not necessarily have to fasten at the ankle.
Okay, so there is not definitive answer. I guess we’ll have to consult an etymologist. Is there a lesson here?
Slipper as post-modern angst