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1907 (from 1903 as a French word in English), from French sabotage, from saboter "to sabotage, bungle," literally "walk noisily," from sabot "wooden shoe" (13c.), altered (by association with Old French bot "boot") from Middle French savate "old shoe," from an unidentified source that also produced similar words in Old Provençal, Portuguese, Spanish (zapata), Italian (ciabatta), Arabic (sabbat), and Basque (zapata).
In French, and at first in English, the sense of "deliberately and maliciously destroying property" originally was in reference to labor disputes, but the oft-repeated story (as old as the record of the word in English) that the modern meaning derives from strikers' supposed tactic of throwing shoes into machinery is not supported by the etymology. Likely it was not meant as a literal image; the word was used in French in a variety of "bungling" senses, such as "to play a piece of music badly." This, too, was the explanation given in some early usages.
SABOTAGE [chapter heading] The title we have prefixed seems to mean "scamping work." It is a device which, we are told, has been adopted by certain French workpeople as a substitute for striking. The workman, in other words, purposes to remain on and to do his work badly, so as to annoy his employer's customers and cause loss to his employer. ["The Liberty Review," January 1907]
You may believe that sabotage is murder, and so forth, but it is not so at all. Sabotage means giving back to the bosses what they give to us. Sabotage consists in going slow with the process of production when the bosses go slow with the same process in regard to wages. [Arturo M. Giovannitti, quoted in report of the Sagamore Sociological Conference, June 1907]
In English, "malicious mischief" would appear to be the nearest explicit definition of "sabotage," which is so much more expressive as to be likely of adoption into all languages spoken by nations suffering from this new force in industry and morals. Sabotage has a flavor which is unmistakable even to persons knowing little slang and no French .... ["Century Magazine," November 1910]
1912, from sabotage (n). Related: Sabotaged; sabotaging.
deliberate destruction of property or slowing down of work with the intention of damaging a business or economic system or weakening a government or nation in a time of national emergency. The word is said to date from a French railway strike of 1910 when workers destroyed the wooden shoes (sabots) that held the rails in place. A few years later sabotage was employed in the United States in the form of slowdowns, particularly in situations that made a strike untenable-such as by migratory workers whose employment was temporary. During World War II anti-German resistance and partisan movements in Europe practiced effective sabotage against factories, military installations, railroads, bridges, and so on, especially in the Soviet Union. After the war, sabotage became the basic weapon of the numerous insurgent groups associated with anticolonial, separatist, and communist-backed movements