A newspaper columnist wrote that President George Bush had once again “put his foot in it,” when the columnist actually meant “put his foot in his mouth.”
It makes a difference – the two expressions don’t mean the same thing.
You put your foot in your mouth when you say something embarrassing or awkward – it’s a verbal faux pas. A friend put her foot in her mouth, for example, when she asked a fat woman who was not pregnant when her baby was due.
Putting your foot in it, however, means stepping in something foul. It’s a metaphorical misstep – the opposite of “putting your foot right” – and one that has unfortunate consequences. A thief, for example, made some purchases in a convenience store, then pulled a gun, held up the place, and sped away with his loot. How did he put his foot in it? He’d paid for his purchases with his credit card.
“Foot” expressions are common in both literal and figurative language and are usually clear from the context. We put our best foot forward or get our foot in the door. We’re light on our feet, land on our feet and think well on our feet. We’re trying to get a foothold, or to get on equal footing. We’d like to leave our footprints in the sands of time.
When we’ve had enough, we put our foot down. Those with itchy feet are lucky if they’re also footloose and fancy-free and don’t end up with a driver who has a lead foot. We could end up where, as a student once wrote, “the hand of man has never set foot.”
Or we don’t want to go, so we drag our feet.
Show us some footlights, and we dazzle ‘em with our footwork, bringing the crowd to its feet. The audience members, thus swept off their feet, will be at our feet. We might consider them lackeys, or footboys. They might even be sycophants – footkissers, footlickers or bootlickers. They might wait on us hand and foot and remain underfoot – until they discover we have feet of clay. Then they will dash away, fleet of foot.
We call a newcomer or novice a tenderfoot, a frontier term for the dude whose feet are sore from new cowboy boots. We term an amateur or someone who lacks judgment or ability a footling. An insubstantial or inept person is footless, meaning, metaphorically, that he has no feet – thus, lacks foundation.
We might say of a judgmental person who wants everyone to conform to his standards: “He measures everyone’s foot by his own last.” (A last is a foot-shaped form used in shoemaking.)
We might say something is “footy” when we mean paltry or poor. The sound of a step is a footfall. We foot the bill. Or maybe we don’t foot the bill and try to sneak away, like a slyboots or footpad. But we may be caught flat-footed – maybe by a flatfoot! Or by a gumshoe.
Slyboots and footpad (which means a petty thief, one who steals on foot) are interesting in that both French and German have similar expressions: pied plat (flat foot) and leisenstreter (light treader), each meaning one who moves stealthily and for clandestine purpose. Unlike the pied plat of French, however, the flatfoot of American English means a police officer and refers not to stealth, but rather to the fallen arches of one who walks a beat.
The Latin and Greek roots for the word foot are ped and pod. We see those prefixes in podiatrist, pedal, pedestrian, pedicure, pedometer, etc. We also see “pod” suffixes in words such as arthropod (certain invertebrate animals such as insects, arachnids and crustaceans) or pleopod, meaning resembling a foot.
And, notably, we see the “foot” root in podium, which helps us remember that a podium is the platform a speaker stands on. The stand a speaker stands at and which holds notes and maybe a microphone is better called a lectern (related to lecture).
But that’s just a footnote.
Paula LaRocque was writing coach at The Dallas Morning News for 20 years. Her latest book is “The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.” A collection of her Quill columns appears in “Championship Writing.” E-mail her at: email@example.com.