What we call the shoes on our feet will vary drastically from style to application to geographical origin. One of the most common shoe term debates revolves around the athletic shoe known as a tennis shoe or sneaker. Many wearers use these terms interchangeably while others lament that they are defined differently.
Why are tennis shoes called sneakers? The term “sneakers” to refer to athletic shoes arose as early as 1887. The newly introduced rubber-soled shoes often used to play tennis and croquet were extremely quiet on the ground in comparison to the standard hard-soled dress shoes commonly worn then. The stealthy nature allowed wearers to “sneak” up on people, hence the term “sneakers.”
Whether you call them sneakers or tennis shoes can have a lot to do with where you are from or even your age. Either way, you are likely talking about the same type of shoe. While most wearers do not use their sneakers for sneaking, the name found a way of sticking for decades and various styles.
In this article, we will walk you through how tennis shoes and sneakers came to be such a pinnacle part of our culture, the differences between the terms, and other common names for athletic footwear around the world.
Why Are Tennis Shoes Called Sneakers?
Plimsolls are the original name for tennis shoes or athletic shoes. This name was given to the first low-tech version of an athletic shoe with a rubber sole. The name was lifted from the book “The Plimsoll Sensation.” The author saw the line separating the sole and the canvas part of the shoe to resemble the plimsoll line on a ship’s hull.
The term Plimsoll suck for a while in British English terms, but the shoes quickly became known as sneakers in American English. The most commonly worn footwear during the 1880s in America was a hard-soled leather dress shoe. The hard sole made a very distinctive noise as wearers walked, and it was easy to tell when someone was approaching because of that.
When the athletic shoes began to enter American culture on and off of the tennis courts, the rubber soles were much quieter than the standard dress shoes of the period. Those rubber-soled shoes soon became known as “sneakers” as the person wearing them could effectively “sneak” up on someone.
The term “sneakers” grew in popularity, even more, when the Boston Journal referenced tennis shoes by calling them sneakers. Once accepted by major publications, many boys would refer to their tennis shoes as such. Then, as the application of the rubber-soled shoe became more diverse, more and more types of athletic style shoes became known as sneakers.
As the consumer demand for athletic shoes began to grow in the 20th-century, they began to be used outside of sporting events. This especially was a trend during the interwar period (period between the first and second world wars).
Once the manufacturer’s started to advertise to the masses, many people found themselves wearing tennis shoes as casual footwear in their daily lives. Many sports shoe companies came into existence, and different types of sport-specific shoes for sports like running and basketball became popular.
During that boom in production, the term sneakers began to apply more specifically to the casual footwear version of the tennis shoe.
Jumping into the 1990s, sneakers had a devoted following entirely outside of the sports world. Since the 1970s, major shoe brands like Nike, Addidas, Converse, and Puma targeted celebrities and followers of the Hip-Hop and Rock n’ Roll cultures.
The so-called “sneakerheads” of the time were seen as collectors. With a target-rich environment, sneaker companies were able to produce less to sell at a higher price, making their sneakers collector worthy.
Nowadays, exclusive establishments, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, sells more than just sneakers. Still, they can sell artistically-modified sneakers for extremely high prices as the sneaker culture is still alive today.
Difference Between Tennis Shoes and Sneakers
While many of us may use the terms tennish shoes and sneakers interchangeably, some shoe enthusiasts do not agree the terms are synonymous. The significant differences these consumers usually identify are explained in more detail below.
As athletic shoes had a primary origination on the tennis and croquet courts, it is only natural that we would refer to them as tennis shoes. As the athletic shoe design became more complex and individualized to different sporting events, the name still stuck. However, many tennis shoe wearers claim that when referring to “tennis shoes,” you are talking about the shoes explicitly designed for use on the tennis court.
Here are some primary tennis shoe identifiers:
- Lateral support
- Made with shock-absorbent materials
- Non-scuffing soles
- Usually only sold in athletic or sporting goods stores
- Higher price point since they’re a specialty shoe
As the game of tennis is a high-intensity sport that involves frequent changes in position and fast reaction time, shoes designed for the sport are specific to the needs of the players. Still, you will find that most North Americans refer to any athletic footwear as a tennis shoe, no matter the sport they’re associated with.
As described earlier in this article, the term sneakers came about when athletic shoes entered the scene as casual, everyday apparel. While some regions of the world still refer to all athletic shoes as sneakers, it is most commonly seen that sneakers are casual and comfortable. The only real similarity between a sneaker and tennish shoe is the rubber sole.
Since sneakers are not typically designed for a specific activity, they tend to be more comfortable to wear and allow for more flexibility. This loose-fitting style would not be conducive to most sporting events and is only applied in the casual footwear designs.
Here are some primary sneaker identifiers:
- Little to no lateral support
- Soles will vary by design, but many do not have anti-scuffing properties
- They generally will not have a shock-absorbing design
- Sneakers are available in major department and apparel stores, not athletic departments
- Sneaker designs are more artistic versus for practical use
- Sneakers have a specific cultural following
Sneakers have a long-standing history in the world of footwear. Terminology for these casual shoes is niche-specific in the form of culture, not necessarily activity. While some geographical areas still refer to all athletic shoes as sneakers, the term is most often reserved for the style of the shoe, not the application.
Other Common Tennis Shoe Terms
Tennis Shoes is a term used most often in the United States and Australia when describing athletic or sporting shoes worn during training or athletic events. While tennis shoes are a common form of footwear all over the world, it seems that most countries or regions have come up with their names for the type of shoe.
Other Names for Tennis Shoes:
- Training Shoes or Trainers (Britain)
- Daps (Wales)
- Sneakers (North America, New Zealand, and Australia)
- Kicks (Urban areas of the United States)
- Sport Shoes, Tennies, Sneaks, or Takkies (South Africa)
- Canvas Shoes (Nigeria)
- Runners or Gutties (Canada, Scotland, and Australia)
- Sportex (Greece)
- Joggers (UK and Australia)
- Rubber Shoes (Philippine English)
These types of athletic shoes have gone by many names, and the phrasing often changes with time and geographical area. Many terms listed above are considered to be slang and are only used by certain sects of society. One thing that can be agreed on is that the type of shoes everyone is referring to were initially worn for physical activity and now have become an everyday fashion statement.