Why do flip flops go flip flop?
July 4, 2008 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Why do flip flops go flip flop? As opposed to flip flip or even flop flop?

I can only think that the sandal acts as a sound board and there's enough difference in every pair (to say nothing of the effect of each unique foot wedded to each sandal) that they make distinct sounds. But I have to wonder, by the law of averages would not some pairs have to be the same, thus sound the same? If one put a pair of flip flops into lab conditions and gave them fake feet with identical surface contact to each sandal and put them through their paces, would they sound the same then? Anyone ever try it? I'm guessing it would be a good high school science project for a really clever science child.

Extra points for the clip clop of horses, and even regular shoes.
posted by IndigoJones to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, in Arabic a flip flop is called a shib shib. They must have mastered the art of acoustically identical footwear along with the zero.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 2:08 PM on July 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Mine have always made the same sound ... are you sure that it's not just your perception?
posted by different at 2:09 PM on July 4, 2008

I think the flip flop refers to the sound each shoe makes (flip as it flips up, flop as it goes down), not the sound of the pair.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:10 PM on July 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Here's how you know it's not differences in the shoe: if someone leads with their left foot or right foot, you get the same effect. It's never "flop flip".

Either it's purely psychological (my guess) or it has something to do with the way you walk--maybe you put more pressure on every 2nd and 4th step?
posted by DMan at 2:11 PM on July 4, 2008

My dear Indigo, it may be that you are being suggestible in assuming that they indeed do go flip flop, just because that's what their (English) name is. Let's be even more exact. Do they go flip flop with an American accent, or Australian, or some other? Jokes ad absurdum aside, now you've got me wondering... I'm going to see if anybody here has asked for onomatopoeic names in different languages. You know, do dogs "bark" in Germany.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 2:18 PM on July 4, 2008

If you start listening to any repetitive beat it seems natural that the first note is high and the second is low, even if they are exactly the same sound. I don't know why this is. Tap your finger on the table....for me it is high, low, high, low every time unless I consciously change the emphasis. Hence flip flop and not flop flip.
posted by fire&wings at 2:23 PM on July 4, 2008

Basically the answer is you only think flip flops go flip-flop. Different languages have different names for the sounds of objects and animals. For example, in Indian flip-flops are called chappals and I think chap-chap-chap when I hear flip flops not really flip-flop. The same goes for the sounds animals make -- look at this extremely interesting list of the sounds that different animals are supposed to make in different languages. Dogs seem to make sounds all the way from vov vov and vau vau to bow wow and woof woof.
posted by peacheater at 2:23 PM on July 4, 2008

In New Zealand, they're called jandals... because that's how they sound in the Southern Hemisphere.
posted by xanthippe at 2:24 PM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

> ...I'm going to see if anybody here has asked for onomatopoeic names in different languages. You know, do dogs "bark" in Germany.

There's a chart listing various animal sounds in different cultures. Doesn't cover anything other than animals.
posted by Korou at 2:26 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Next time you go for a walk in your...betwixt the toe shoes, why don't you say in your head "flop flip flop flip" instead of "flip flop flip flop?" I think you will find that you've magically transformed your flip flops into a shiny new pair of flop flips, just like that.

(Power of suggestion...it's just like when you hear repetitive beats (like windshield wipers) and think "oh that's jingle bells!" until you start thinking of the tune to twinkle twinkle little star (or whatever), and then it matches twinkle twinkle little star...and then you remember it's a tuneless set of repetitive beats.)

On preview: about 5 other people just said this same thing.
posted by phunniemee at 2:28 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

In New Zealand, they're called jandals... because that's how they sound in the Southern Hemisphere

Only in NZ, xanthippe. In Australia they go "thong, thong, thong".
posted by different at 2:33 PM on July 4, 2008

Flip, it hits the bottom of your heel, flop, it hits the ground.
posted by interrobang at 2:47 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

The silly person upthread who asked if the shoes pronounce flip flop with an accent should know better. It's American, of course!
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 2:47 PM on July 4, 2008

Response by poster: Oh dear, I knew I was going to get bitch slapped for being Americo-centric.

I get it, different places, different names (and thanks to those directing us to the different places and names, most interesting- I love the detours like that). But the point remains- each step is different. I considered the psychological answer, and gave a test walk to see if that accounted for it. Still sounded to me like distinct sounds, either flip/flop or flop/flip depending on which foot started first. Of course, that could just be me, but give it a shot before dismissing my eccentricities and report your finding. (Interrobang, good thought, but try it out - it's always the sandal hitting the heel.)

But you tell me other places make no distinction in the sounds? Very interesting, and raises the question- why do they not? Or, if you prefer, why do we?

Clearly this is a subject needing serious study. Many thanks to all those stepping in so far, and please keep your comments coming. Science demands a definitive answer.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:24 PM on July 4, 2008

It's because /ɪ/ in flip is a high vowel and /a/ or /ɔ/ in flop is a low vowel. This is generally the pattern in English reduplicated onomatopoeia words—if the vowels differ, the pattern is usually high-low, not low-high. The Wikipedia page on reduplication lists the following as examples of such ablaut reduplication:
bric-a-brac, chit-chat, criss-cross, dilly-dally, ding-dong, fiddle-faddle, flimflam, flip-flop, hippety-hoppety, kitcat, kitty-cat, knick-knack, mish-mash, ping-pong, pitter-patter, riff-raff, rickrack, riprap, see-saw, shilly-shally, sing-song, snicker-snack, splish-splash, teeny-tiny, teeter-totter, tic-tac-toe, tick-tock, ticky-tacky, tip-top, tittle-tattle, wish-wash, wishy-washy, zig-zag
posted by The Tensor at 5:05 PM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think it's ablaut.

Ablaut is the phenomenon in language of related words differing only their vowel, arranged in sequence from high to low. English doesn't make much use of this grammatically except in a few strong verbs (sing-sang-sung) but it does have a lot of reduplicated pairs that exhibit this:

criss-cross, flip-flop, knick-knack, mishmash, riffraff, shilly-shally, sing-song, ding-dong, ...

Notice how weird "flop flip" sounds.

I don't think there is a difference in the physical sounds made by this footwear at all. It's just that in English, when we have repeated syllables for the same thing, we like the second vowel to be lower - either i to o or i to u, sometimes i-a.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:10 PM on July 4, 2008

Damnit tensor. In five minutes you beat me and did it better.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:11 PM on July 4, 2008

Hmm. I was thinking of something entirely different.

An RS flip-flop or a JK flip-flop is called that because it has two states which are opposite. If you used the same word for both states it wouldn't make sense.

(Am I the only nerd here?)
posted by Class Goat at 5:12 PM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: Do you perhaps have a lopsided gait? Many people do. I hear it's very common for people to have one leg very slightly shorter than the other. Once you get into a rhythm, minor differences like this can build up and get reinforced into a lopsided sound pattern: flip, flop, flip, flop...
posted by No-sword at 5:14 PM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: P.S. To all the haters, I can confirm that the varying sounds are a reality for some people (including me). I can even get it with regular shoes if I'm tired and my posture is bad.
posted by No-sword at 5:15 PM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: People tend to lead with a favored foot when walking over obstructions and so on, so maybe even over a level surface one's gait is asymmetrical enough to hear. But I also often hear flipflop wearers making the same sound with each foot, so my guess is that when the sound is different it's because one f/f is slightly askew, or differently made, or the wearer's feet are slightly different shapes (and therefore fit the flipflops differently).

It seems to me that English has a tradition of reduplicative words/phrases where one sound is altered between the repetitions: flip-flop, ding-dong, bow-wow, hodgepodge, hiphop, fiddle-faddle, peepee, gewgaw, zigzag, etc. For all I know hoi polloi owes its popularity in English the fact that it fits that familiar pattern. Paging onomatopœahat…
posted by hattifattener at 5:15 PM on July 4, 2008

Of course, hearing the sounds as "flip" and "flop" is a cultural thing. Okay, I'm done.
posted by No-sword at 5:16 PM on July 4, 2008

On lack of preview: Dammit tensor and spleen!

Hey, that'd a good catchphrase. <russian accent>Must get tensor and spleen!</accent>

Also, Goat, you're not, but I hardly ever hear people calling the two states of a f/f “flipped” vs “flopped”, so it didn't come to mind.

posted by hattifattener at 5:18 PM on July 4, 2008

This reminds me of my query, why it is a yo-yo and not a yo-oy.
posted by Ponderance at 6:26 PM on July 4, 2008

Do they go flip flop with an American accent, or Australian, or some other?

It's certainly not an Australian accent, for here they are known as thongs. And yes, we *are* all aware of what other nations call as thongs. We use that terminology also, interchangeably with "g-string".
posted by goshling at 8:56 PM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: Could be similar to clocks going tick-tock. Generally, I hear tick-tock when listening to clocks, but sometimes with concentration I can also hear just ticks, just tocks, or some other pattern. So maybe its some odd feature of the brain/perception.
posted by MetaMonkey at 10:36 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Philly, parents from Brooklyn, and never heard the term "flip flop" until I moved to the Midwest. We always called them "scuffs" for both the motion and the sound. (Probably because we were dragging our feet to keep them from going, um "flip flop")

(Yes, I know I am apparently the only person in the world who calls them scuffs, but I swear, this was the only term we used in 50s-60s Philly.)
posted by nax at 7:12 AM on July 5, 2008

Response by poster: There is no award for funniest answer, so Ponderance is out of luck. And the linguistic asides, which are equally as interesting as the original question, lose only for being not on point.

Perhaps I do have lousy gait. Certainly the feet are flattish. If it is just brain perception, though, well, the why question is still out there for a desperate graduate student to investigate.

Again, thanks to all.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:12 AM on September 5, 2008

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