Sunday, May 25, 2014

The etymology of well heeled and down at heel

The idiom ‘well heeled” means ‘wealthy and well provided for.’ The origins are possibly American from the turn of the nineteenth century and there are several meanings of the word heeled which may be the source of this idiom. Heeled might mean wealthy, in good circumstance, or equipped with a weapon, or having a heel, or spur. Well heeled was often applied to a card player with a good hand.

The term appeared in Eva Wilder Brodhead's Bound in Shallows (1897) where a character says, "I ain't so well-heeled right now," (i.e. in deprived circumstance). The idiom was also taken in its literal sense in reference to shoes. Good quality shoes were expensive and became a visual sign of prosperity. During the American frontier years, individuals wearing sturdy equestrian spurs were considered “well heeled.’

In the Old West the term heeled was also used to refer to weapons such as pistols. An early reference appears in J. H. Beadle's Undeveloped West, (1873): "To travel long out West a man must be, in the local phrase, 'well heeled'." Gun carrying frontiersmen were powerful and prepared and hence ‘well heeled.’ The allusion may refer back to fighting spurs used in cock-fighting. The sharp spurs were designed to inflict maximum damage.

It is likely the two meanings “wealthy” and “well armed” developed simultaneously and independent of each other.

The converse phrase 'down at heel," meaning "poor" or "destitute," was common was known in the 15th century and in common usage by the 17th century. "Down at the heels" refers to the sad state of a poor person's worn-out shoes.

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