Tennis shoes, sneakers, or trainers?


Image: The Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes

Something I read earlier this evening started me thinking about the different words people use when referring to the cushioned rubber-soled shoes worn for athletic activities. In the past I’ve gone off on tangents about soda vs. pop vs. coke usage around the country. This time it’s footwear.

It’s obvious from the map that tennis shoes and sneakers are the most commonly used words across the country, which puts me in the minority immediately. I sometimes say “tennies” because it’s short, but to me tennies and sneakers are the plain, inexpensive canvas Keds I wore as a kid (see below). When Nike introduced their first specialized running shoes in the early ’70s — and priced them accordingly — we had, in my mind, moved onward and upward to a totally different kind of high tech shoe, designed especially for the needs of joggers and runners and certainly deserving of a name better than mere “tennis shoes” or “sneakers.” These new fangled shoes had shock absorption, traction, heel lift, arch support, corrections for pronation or supination. “Tennies” they were not.

Perhaps because I was into jogging at the time, or because it was the common usage in Oklahoma City, I called them joggers or jogging shoes. And for the most part I have ever since. And yet, like my soda/pop conundrum, I’m aware that I’m in the minority and I struggle for the right word to use to “fit in.” Athletic shoes is accurate but cumbersome. Running shoes sounds good to me, but at my age I feel funny talking about my running shoes when I haven’t run, or even jogged, for decades. And yet mere walking shoes are a specific type of athletic shoe and not the type I wear. Gym shoes sounds more like the lowly tennis shoes I used to wear than the expensive, specialized athletic shoes sold today. Besides, there are athletic shoes designed specifically for tennis, which I don’t play, just as there are for running, cross training, weight lifting, etc.

And those are just the terms I’m used to hearing. The first stop on my word search happened to be the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Their discussion also introduced terms from the British Isles, which only complicated the issue. They found a different map from the Harvard survey:


When the survey was conducted in the British Isles, this was the result:


Bottom line, I still can’t decide what to call these shoes. I’m likely to blurt out several names in the same sentence, which only draws attention to my indecision: “I got a new pair of joggers, er, running shoes today.”

These are the Keds/tennies I wore as a kid. We threw them in the washing machine as needed, and/or painted them with white shoe polish:


These were my first Nikes — joggers — with their innovative waffle sole:


And these are my current shoes from Saucony. I’ve tried most brands over the years but now buy either Saucony or New Balance:


So there you have it. My conundrum for the evening. Still not sure what I want to call these shoes. Often they aren’t even worn as athletic shoes anymore. Many people wear them purely for looks or leisure comfort (me!). No athleticism required or expected. Maybe that’s why they get demoted back to “tennies” or “sneakers.”

All of which leads me to ask what you call this type of shoe (and where do you live)?


16 thoughts on “Tennis shoes, sneakers, or trainers?

      1. I should add that in my case as far as the ‘running shoe’ genre goes, I refer to that type of shoe as any shoe I am wearing from wingtips to sandals if or when the Boogie Man gets after me…. 😀

    1. I’ve heard “trainers” enough to consider it a US term, but it’s obvious from the images that it’s more common in the UK. Admittedly they are so common here in Colo. that one could almost just call them shoes. Then the only distinction you need to make might be “boots” or “dress shoes.”

  1. Well, I used to play tennis, so to me that’s something specific; sneakers are the canvas items, what we wore in the 50s but it sounds out of date now; trainers is a British usage. So… I use ’em mainly to walk, these days, not to run, and I call ’em walking shoes – that could mean those more blucher-looking things (like Clarks) but to me, it’s also my New Balances or (currently) Brooks.

    1. Precisely why “tennies” doesn’t roll easily off my tongue. I don’t play tennis and I know there are shoes designed specifically for tennis. My problem, obviously, is becoming too conscious of what I’m saying (still editing myself, even though I’m retired!) and then starting to overthink it. And having started this discussion, I’ve probably just made the problem worse!

... and that's my two cents