Slippery Spanish: Fashion, history and language

Nerd alert: I love to read the dictionary. I don’t mean English-Spanish dictionaries (although those are cool too); I mean single language dictionaries. Not translations; meanings. Etymologies, literary references, pictures. There’s just one little setback, though: I don’t currently own a dictionary, alas. Solution? Go visit my best friend, Anna Laura, and her husband, Marshall. In lieu of a baby, they have this dictionary that weighs somewhere around ten pounds, and it’s chock-full of word goodness. I went and visited them a few weekends ago and had a ball scanning that thing for interesting and bizarre words. Here’s one that caught my roving eye, jumping out at me because I immediately associated it with its Spanish counterpart, and then the ensuing rabbithole it led me down. Would you have made the connection? That is to say, are you as adroit a nerd as I? A ver.

Pabouch 1687. [See BABOUCHE, PAPOOSH.] A heelless oriental slipper.

Babouches in Marrakesh

Babouche 1695. [ a.F., ad. (uH.) Pers., pa foot + posh covering.] A Turkish or oriental slipper.

Shoe store in Copenhagen, Denmark

Papoosh, papouch 1682. [ a. Pers. paposh slipper, shoe, f. pa foot + posh covering.] A Turkish or Oriental slipper.

I immediately thought: babuchas! What are babuchas? Why, they’re one way to say slippers in Spanish. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Then I got curious about trying to find some sort of equivalent for pantuflas, which is the more common and standard word for slipper in Spanish. Expecting to be disappointed, I made my way in that direction to find:

Pantofle 1494. [ a.F. pan-toufle. Origin unkn.] A slipper; formerly applied esp. to the high-heeled cork-soled chopines; also to out-door overshoes or goloshes, sandals and the like.

Modern reproduction of overshoe-style pantoufles

That dictionary was revised in the 50s. It looks like modern lexicographers have been able to take a stab at its origin, though: [from French pantoufle, from Old Italian pantofola, perhaps from Medieval Greek pantophellos shoe made of cork, from panto- + phellos cork].

A little Internet sleuth work has confirmed that pantofles came in two styles–a medieval protective, outdoor overshoe or a slipper for indoors which could be high-heeled or Oriental style. They were very delicate and could be highly ornate.

Slipper-style pantoufles

Naturally, I then became curious about chopines.

Chopine, chopin A kind of shoe raised above the ground by means of a cork sole or the likeNearer Heauen . . . by the altitude of a Choppine. Hamlet II. ii. 445

An Italian chopine

They apparently let women protect their dresses from mud and muck as well as denoted social status. The taller the better, desde luego. They’ve been described as what was possibly the first clothing fad, becoming all the rage in Italy and then spreading to Spain, France, and Switzerland. The dainty stride (read: hobble) they subjected women to apparently became quite attractive to men, assuring them that their wives wouldn’t go a-wanderin’ on them. Italian clergymen were also keen on women tottering on the shoes, giving them the thumbs up because they kept the wearer from indulging in lascivious activities such as dancing. There is also speculation that they were a favorite of prostitutes in order to make them more visible to potential clients.

A Spanish chopine

That didn’t ring any bells, but Wikipedia tells me here and here that chopines in Spanish are chapines. Perhaps I shall one day find myself on a date with someone doing a dissertation on 16th century feminine footwear in Spain, in which case being able to whip out the word chapines just might come in handy, er, footy. Otherwise, I think I can safely relegate that to the useless knowledge section of my brain. Unless, of course, I’m talking about Guatemalans. They’re also known as chapines. Well, maybe I’ll be on a date with one of them someday and can ask for the backstory.

So, why all the fuss about some old shoes? Am I just your typical woman with a clichéd and boring shoe infatuation? Not hardly. However, this little trip through the shoes of yesteryear all too predictably led me back to Spanish, as so many of my mental meanderings are wont to do. The big takeaway was learning a little of the history and etymology behind two words I was already familiar with: pantuflas and babuchas.

Pantuflas are slippers. For some reason, there’s something about the sound of that word to me that makes it sound especially fitting for big, floppy, fuzzy bunny slippers (it must be the “tufl” sound), but the word covers all varieties.

Pantuflas par excellence

I have no idea why, but for some reason the DRAE directs you to pantuflo when you try to look up pantufla. One of us must be out to sea, and I don’t think it’s me. Slippers are so clearly and divinely feminine; just look at them! You can safely use the word pantuflas in all Spanish-speaking countries and rest assured that your meaning is caught. Pantuflos? I’d be prepared for some head-scratching.


So there I was teaching my eighth graders in Bogotá a few years ago, and I said the word pantuflas. I know, I know; I wasn’t supposed to use Spanish with them. Every once in a blue moon, though, a Spanish word me salía, what can I say? One of our vocab words at the time was “shuffle,” and I was explaining how it’s typical to shuffle when wearing slippers. And then pantuflas simply slipped out of my mouth and into their delighted ears. They always got a kick out of me speaking Spanish. One girl yelled back, “Oh, you mean babuchas!” Babuchas? The girls all nodded sweetly, unaware of the meltdown taking place in my brain at that moment. So, yeah. There you have it. At least in Colombia, you can also call slippers babuchasalthough it seems that pantuflas is much more common. (Maybe babuchas is more rural/old-fashioned?) I’ve pressed a few friends up against a wall and tried to demand that they explain the difference to me, and they simply couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I suppose no culture wants to give away all of its secrets after all.

I know that they mainly say zapatillas in Spain for slippers.

A word to the wise: do not walk around barefoot indoors in Colombia unless you want people to think you’re crazy as a loon and you take pleasure in causing high blood pressure in those around you. In my experience, people generally take their shoes off inside and then immediately slip into a pair of pantuflas/babuchas or house sandals- chanclas, chancletas or arrastraderas (I learned that last one from Blasina, my dear ex-suegra, when she once lent me a pair). Big emphasis on immediately. This is not one of those ahora/ahorita kinds of things you get around to three hours later. Seeing you flaunt your naked, unprotected feet in front of their very friolento sensibilities will not only cause them shock, it will produce extreme discomfort and anguish on their part. You see, for Colombians, bare feet = impending death. I wish I were making this up. You going around with your feet au naturel will keep them up at night. They will go to additional mass services just to pray for your health and to beg God to be merciful when the terminal disease is dealt. They will suffer. Don’t be cruel and insensitive; wrap those feet up.

There are a few more tricks I could teach you about shoes in Colombia, but I think this is plenty for now. Many thanks to Francis Classe for the permission to use images from his website! An amazing shoemaker/cobbler/cordwainer, he even teaches you how to make your very own pantoufles and chopines. Check him out.

What about you? Did you know about pantuflas and babuchas? What other words for shoes in Spanish do you know? Do you find dictionaries as fun as I do? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? What word do you say for slippers?


17 responses to “Slippery Spanish: Fashion, history and language

  1. This is what I Creativity!!!


  2. cesarincarabello

    I couldn’t get my hosts in Mexico to leave my feet alone when I tried the barefoot thing… the result… Guaraches over socks… A crime in every culture… Great post!


    • Thanks! Guaraches, huh? You just taught me a new word, gracias. Yeah, I got so much flak for going around descalza. And when you do get sick (be it a mere sniffle or something serious), you get a lot of finger-wagging and “¡Ya te lo dije!“s :(

      Nos vemos bailando :)


  3. Beautiful post, Vocabat. I thought you might also want to mention that “ver” (in French “vair” or “verre”) is what probably gives us Cinderella’s slippers, the former being the original version for a slipper of fur, or as Perrault wrote it down, as “verre” for Cinderella’s glass slipper (don’t believe the doubters). Of course, in French “ver” is also a worm, but slippers of worms are a pretty horrifying thought, unless they are silkworms (vers à soie), so better to imagine it with an ‘s’ on the end, “vers,” where in French it also metamorphoses into a line of poetry (verse)–which fits your post perfectly.

    —polyglottaly yours,


    • Thank you. Beautiful? Really? I think I’ve written some posts that fit that description, but I didn’t consider this to be one of them. I suppose I have my poetic moments, though.

      I didn’t quite follow everything you wrote. What do you mean by “Don’t believe the doubters”? And how did fur become glass?

      Oh, I just discovered this. How interesting!

      Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre (la pequeña pantufla de vidrio)– OK, so either her sable/Siberian squirrel fur slipper or her glass slipper. There’s also an interesting explanation here:

      I did think about Cinderella’s glass slipper(s) while writing this post. I discovered that in Spanish it’s usually one of these (in descending order of frequency):
      -zapato de cristal
      -zapatilla de cristal

      And how about Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in El mago de Oz? Los zapatos de rubí, las zapatillas de rubí, or los chapines de rubí. !!! How interesting that chapines (from chopines) has been preserved in this way. It’s the only example I can find where it’s preserved and doesn’t refer to the Renaissance shoes. I’m always learning a lot from this blog ;)


  4. decimos pantuflas oficialmente para los fluffies que usamos durante el invierno. pero de hecho decimos chanclas siempre, para flip-flop chancla o pantufla chancla. talvez es porque somos de clima caliente lo normal es chanclas en la casa. aunque andamos sin calcetines la mayoría del tiempo…y hasta el momento sobrevivo


    • Hola Grace,

      Un gusto recibir tu comentario, como siempre. Sí, andar descalzo es lo más de rico, solo recomiendo que mantengas los pies bien arropaditos si algún día estás en Colombia, sobre todo en Bogotá. Es muy cansón tener la gente regañándote todo el tiempo por los pies :)


  5. Hmm…a woman that likes chopine but doesn’t find shoes beautiful? The only desirable beauty is found in Vogue and GQ? Thoughtful intelligence and humor are not beautiful? I like the way you start with something trivial and travel to reveal layers of history and society across cultures. But then I love wandering through dictionaries. I also am planning on baking some pantoufles now that I’ve seen the photos, possibly with rabbit ears.

    But revenons à nos moutons: your reference puts it very well “Pero el uso de este material, muy preciado entre los años 1300 y 1500, fue perdiendo vigencia y para la segunda mitad del siglo XVII, época en la que Perrault redacta la versión escrita del cuento, la gente ya no relacionaba vair con la piel de ardilla. Ahora bien, tanto vair como verre se pronuncian exactamente de la misma manera. En la tradición oral, entre la gente que no sabía leer ni escribir, se identificó la pronunciación [vεr] con un material mucho más frecuente para la época: le verre.” The doubters (I assume you don’t doubt the story of Cinderella) include Snopes ( who would have us believe that because the word was medieval, it could not be a mishearing. Yet dictionaries of 17th century usage weren’t very complete, and the mishearing doesn’t have to be Perrault’s, or maybe he did know it and just made a pun. Glass slippers are so much more magical.

    As to other enchanted slippers, in the Wizard of Oz, the slippers were originally silver, changed to ruby for the movie, and the book is really a long political allegory (, most likely with the “silver slippers” a deviation from the gold standard as an aid to getting back to prosperity. But what about the Chinese Cinderella’s golden slippers, and who knows what the the Greek-Egyptian ones were made of?

    In French, a pantouflard is someone who lives an easy, retired life, or someone who takes the easy way out, and pantoufler is an old word for speaking intimately I guess while wearing pantoufles; in Italian pantofola also means to live an easy, retired, non-ambitious life. But you don’t seem a pantouflarde, even if your word woven pantoufles (what could be more magical than that!) fit you quite well.

    polyglottaly yours,


    • You are right, there are so many varieties of beauty. Yes, glass slippers are much more magical. I had heard that about the Oz slippers. I’ve never read the book.

      I love the word pantoufler! I could easily coin “pantuflear” in conversation, and people would catch my drift. I read somewhere that “pantuflo/a” as an adjective means the same as pantofola, although I wonder if that’s widely known or something from days gone by. In any case, I assure you that I am much more pantufla than you give me credit for.


  6. It appears that the new President of France has come out against pantouflage (another more specific meaning as those who quit public service for private business, typically for a better paying job, even though the state paid for their education with an agreed on period of public service as the condition: Pour vous, le mot juste serait plutôt pantoufleur que pantouflard (si vous voulez fabriquer un mot français), ou mieux encore peut-être, en espagnol, “pantuflorear.”


  7. whatwhileweslept

    I love everything about this post, and these wonderfully erudite comments. I’ve learned a lot. The discussion of house-slippers in Colombia (and Mexico?) is so interesting, too, and I’m curious about the origins of that. Dirty floors? Dread of callouses? No telling. But I love that I grew up calling slippers “house-shoes” (and, for that matter, “robes” were “house-coats”). Shoes for wearing in the house.

    In the dictionary you’re referencing in this post, I find “slipper” deriving from the verb “slip” (as in, a shoe you can slip on), and “slip-shod” (now meaning careless and half-done) originally meaning, “Wearing slippers or very loose shoes, in later use esp. such as are down at the heel,” and “Of shoes: Loose or untidy; in bad condition; down at the heel 1687.”

    Love this!


    • I have wonderfully erudite readers. What a delight!

      I think it’s mostly about your feet “catching cold.” Or something like that.

      Slipshod!!!!! I never even thought about that! That is the coolest thing I’ve learned all year.


  8. “Down at the heel 1687”! I love that!

    The Littré (the French OED esp. for 17th-19th c.) suggests catching cold is probably it:

    “Etymologie : Catal. plantofa ; espagn. pantuflo ; ital. pantofola, pantufola ; piémont. patofle et pantofle ; génev. patoufle, homme qui marche lourdement ; angl. pantofle ; allem. Pantoffel ; holland. pattuffel. Origine inconnue. Diez conjecture que le radical est pat nasalisé, lequel représente patte ; la finale oufle, qui par soi ne signifie rien, serait dite sur le modèle de man-oufle, employé en Provence pour moufle, gant. On pourrait aussi conjecturer un dérivé de panoufle (voy. ce mot), bien que l’insertion du t fasse une grosse difficulté.”

    “man-oufle” would be something like ‘hand-muffler’; “panoufle” > panne = hide of an animal with fur attached, ie pelt; actually, I think the “mouffle” part comes from “mouflon” which is a type of wild sheep from which “main-oufle” is a nice production. For Panne, we find Cinderella again: as a part of a heraldic crest: “Vair or ermine fur.” And the second meaning is whileweslept’s slipshod 1687: “Être dans la panne, être dans la misère (probablement panne signifie ici haillon [rags]).” So in French, to be ‘en panne’ (for example, a car) is to be broken down. Perhaps the ‘t’ added comes from ‘pantalon’ > pants?

    There is another meaning in French, which goes very well with pantuflorear: Cypripedium reginae, or Pink-and-white Lady’s Slipper/Showy Lady’s Slipper


  9. Pingback: A blog birthday | Vocabat

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