"Oooohh, cute boots," I said covetously as I spotted the Macy's ad on page A3 of today's New York Times. Then I read the copy:
New! Cringe covered wedge ankle boot with buckle detail.
I shrank back in alarm. Cringe covered?
Now, I know a thing or two about the language of footwear. I've been writing copy for a San Francisco shoe retailer for 15 years or so, and I can blabber with some authority about breasted heels, bicycle toes, and D'Orsay pumps. (I also know where highly esteemed cordovan leather comes from: the hindquarters of a horse.) And I know that shoe designers are prone to flights of fancy in naming and describing their creations. (See also what the Manolo has to say about shoe naming.)
But I'd never heard "cringe" applied to shoes. Ever.
I do have a theory, though.
First, what exactly does "cringe" mean?
My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says it comes from an Old English word that meant "yield" or "fall in battle." The most common contemporary meaning is "to shrink the muscles of the body involuntarily; shrink; cower." It has overtones of "behaving in an obsequious or fawning manner."
No doubt technology journalist Mark Stephens had all those squirmy meanings in mind when he chose the nom de nerd Robert X. Cringely.
Back to the Times ad. The Biviel boot depicted is a Macy's Herald Square exclusive, so I can't show you what it looks like. But take a look at the heel of this similar Biviel boot (from Zappos):
See how a single piece of leather envelops both the shaft and the heel? I suspect that some sort of leather-shrinking process was involved. And that, in attempting to describe the style, the Macy's copywriter had an issue with the word shrink, or thought it sounded too pedestrian for this rather unusual feature, and so reached for the thesaurus. And came up with what must have seemed like a logical, even Frenchy-looking, synonym: cringe.
But while shrink can be either neutral ("reduce in size") or negative ("shrink in fear," "shrink in disgust"), cringe is always negative. Unpleasant, even.
This reminds me of my first secretarial job. I was told I would be taking minutes of our group's meetings, and I thought "minutes" lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. So I titled my first report "Moments."
Of course, I was 7 years old, and the group was my Brownie troop. Since then, I've learned (a) that secretarial "minutes" comes from "minutiae," not the unit of time, and (b) that the thesaurus is sometimes my friend ... and sometimes it needs to stay on the bookshelf.