Do You Say “Tennis Shoes”, “Gym Shoes”, or “Sneakers”?

This is a map of how people in different geographic regions of the US refer to athletic footwear, courtesy of Josh Katz, author of Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk and co-creator of that NY Times dialect quiz that went viral 10 years ago.

a map of the USA indicating which terms people use for athletic shoes

Growing up in northern Wisconsin, we said “tennis shoes” or “tennies” most of the time (even though very little actual tennis was being played) and “gym shoes” less often. I hadn’t really heard of “sneakers” as a kid and never used it. (Shoes for sneaking? Huh?) My kids were born in NYC and they give me shit every time I tell them to put their tennies on. 🤷‍♂️

What do you call athletic shoes? Tennies? Sneakers? Kicks? Trainers? Gym shoes? Some other weird thing? (via @dens)

Discussion  43 comments

Louise Hornor

I grew up a military brat and lived all over the country. My parents are from California and said tennis shoes or tennies. That's what I remember from my childhood. We ended up in the northeast when I was 13 and I stayed thru college, and I have said sneakers ever since. My 3-years-older brother still says tennies, so a critical age for having the term cement in our brains may be between 13 and 16?

I have one friend from NYC who says kicks, and he's the only one I know who does. He's in his 70s now.

Brady J. Frey

This! I was a military brat, too– born in Great Lakes. So for me, it was gym shoes at an early age, and has stuck ever since.

I also say Book Bag, which irritates my young daughter. "It's a backpack, dad."

Jesse R.

I'm from the northeast so it's sneakers for me (though I live in Mexico now and in Spanish I say tenis). But the book bag thing... that just unlocked a memory. When I was a kid a book bag was what I carried my school books in, which for me was indeed a backpack, but if I recall correctly any bag for schoolbooks was a book bag.

Isah

@Jesse R — ha! I have lived in Mexico for the last 20 years and before that, in NYC for 10, but raised in the Midwest. This post broke my brain as I tried to think about what I actually say. I ultimately asked my bilingual daughter what she calls her shoes, assuming that she would use the same terminology as I've been the primary "English teacher" in her life. Nope, she said "¿Tenis? ¿Por qué me voy a hablar sobre tenis en inglés?" and had no other contribution. I feel like "gym shoes" would be my go-to, but I'm just going to have to catch myself referring to tenis out in the wild!

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Anthony Sorace

I grew up in NJ where they were always sneakers; I was aware of the term “tennis shoes“, but grew up thinking it was either an obsolete term or just snooty. I didn’t realize it was a regional thing until a year or two ago, when my partner, who grew up in AZ and HI, started saying “tennis shoes” to our kids. I thought she was just being silly the first few times.

Colter Mccorkindale

To be fair, coming from the South, I think what most people are actually saying is "tennashue."

Mike Riley

I'm in/from Wisconsin and it's defiantly pronounced tennashues

Mike Riley

definitely, not defiantly

Monica Danielle

I’m from Utah and i think we defiantly said tennashues 😃

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Jason KottkeMOD

I switched from saying "pop" to "soda" when I moved to CA and then NY, but I've never grown out of "tennis shoes".

I've also noticed (or rather, a friend noticed) that I insert an "ell" sound into the word "both" so it comes out like "bolth". No idea whether this is a upper midwestern thing or just a me thing. I've passed the pronunciation along to my daughter (but not my son) — I recently ran across a story/drawing she did when she was 5 or 6 years old in which she spells "both" as "bolh". 😂

Jim Cormier

I grew up less than an hour from Boston, and although I typically say "soda" now, every now and then I forget where and when I am and "tonic" comes out.

Trev

I grew up in Michigan and said “pop” for the first 18 years of my life. Everyone made fun of me when I moved to San Diego. I stuck to my ways for a bit like it was a point of pride. I gave in and switched to “soda” after a few months. I gotta admit, hearing “pop” when I visit family sounds super weird, especially with a midwest accent.

Monica Danielle

Another weird one is when people say “alls” you gotta do” instead of “all” you gotta do. What is this plural all and where did it come from?

Kelsey P.

My middle sister in my CA-grown family says, “Bolth!” I find it so cute and charming that my kids will say it for fun with me. It hasn’t really stuck as a word they unconsciously pronounce, more like they’ll add “bolth” after using “both” in a sentence. It’s like cheersing my sister.

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Jason KottkeMOD
Tim CarmodyMOD

So although my mother and father both grew up in Detroit, Michigan (as did I), they have fairly different dialects. My mom (whose family had longer Midwestern/American roots) liked to call them "tennis shoes" or "tennies," and my dad (whose parents were from Ireland) usually just said "shoes," sometimes "sneakers," every once in a while "trainers," which feels very British Isles to me.

I switched from "tennis shoes" to "sneakers" sometime in junior high, when I stopped buying generic casual shoes and started buying basketball shoes. And since I now live in Philadelphia, I'm in sneaker country full-time. Although as often as not now, I will call my shoes by their brand names: "let me put on my Skechers/New Balances/Birkenstocks" etc.

Jim Cuene

Love these dialect maps. I grew up in Green Bay, WI. We called them gym shoes or "tennies".

Aubrianne Anderson

I'm a lifelong pacific northwest dweller, and I always said tennis shoes until fairly recently, when I overthought it. I remembered how much I hated the feeling of failing to make racket-to-ball contact, over and over, in that one high school gym class, the only time I've ever attempted tennis. For whatever reason, my brain can't do the calculus required for ball sports.

So I've started saying sneakers, a bit self-consciously, although usually I can just say "shoes" without fear of ambiguity. We have boots, we have shoes (which are sneakers), and we have sandals. Sometimes I mix it up and say trainers, like the British.

Meg Hourihan

Wait WHAT?!? I always thought a few randos said “tennis shoes”, not like almost the whole US except the northeast?!? I swear I don’t even remember hearing Jason say “tennis shoes”. Sneakers. Always and forever.

Jason KottkeMOD

Lol. I have definitely said "tennis shoes" in your presence.

Meg Hourihan

Maybe when you were referring to actual shoes for playing tennis?! 🤣🤣

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Chris Glass

It tracks in Cincinnati. Saying anything other than gym shoes feels foreign.

James Risley

I'm really amazed at how narrow "gym shoes" is geographically.

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Yen Ha

I grew up in Virginia and we definitely said tennis shoes! I didn't even think it was weird until I moved to NYC. I'm a full on sneaker person now though.

Russell Briggs

Los Angeles born and bred. Never said anything but sneakers, though NY-born mom would sometimes say tennis shoes. I think it also depends on the decade for the olds, as well as the place.

Joe S

I’m from NJ but lived as an adult in CA and WA. I heard “tennis shoes” sporadically enough that I thought it referred to some vague, ill-defined subcategory of sneakers that clearly didn’t seem like things you’d wear to actually play tennis.

Had zero clue this was a regional thing.

Mike F.

From Saskatchewan, it was gym shoes at first, then runners or running shoes (regardless of whether they were your Air Jordan basketball shoes, or whatever).

As an aside, it wasn't until I moved to the west coast that I realized that we (from Sask.) were the only people in the world, apparently, who called a hoodie a bunnyhug.
(Which, come on, you have to admit is a WAY better name.)

Caroline G.

When I found out about the "bunnyhug" thing a few years ago I was so delighted. Definitely the best regionalism I've ever heard of.

Ross Bell

Running shoes — must be a Canadian thing. I grew up in Toronto, now live in Saskatchewan. We also called them sneakers; probably got that from American TV.

Ian Hecht

Also from Saskatchewan - can confirm! Running shoes or runners, since the 80s at least. Canada has some interesting regional linguistic quirks beyond the bunnyhug/Vico use in Saskatchewan, as detailed by The 10 and 3: https://web.archive.org/web/20230530184758/http://the10and3.com/this-is-how-canada-talks/ .

Gaelen Marsden

Also "running shoes" in Vancouver (Canada). I had no idea this was a Canadianism.

Christopher Walks

Yep, 100% it's "runners" or "running shoes" in Vancouver, BC. I'm a little surprised that it seems like just a Canadian thing.
I guess Team Canada will be up here wearing runners and toques.

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Mac Brown

Well, for those who haven't seen it - I have wasted hours looking at this map and website:
The "Pin-Pen" Merger!
The "On Line"!
https://aschmann.net/AmEng/
https://aschmann.net/AmEng/#LargeMap

Jared Crookston

Tennis shoes in Texas, but it was fun when my kids were playing tennis and we had to clarify what type of shoes we were talking about. We'd call them 'actual tennis shoes,' 'tennis tennis shoes,' or when not in a hurry and able to organize thoughts better, 'shoes for tennis.'

Leslie Kaminoff

In Queens NY, the genus was definitely “sneakers” but we usually referred to our specific footwear by species:

Keds
P.F. Flyers
Cons (Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars)

…and later, after the huge innovation of leather:

Adidas

Nick Furness

Growing up in the UK It was plimsolls, then trainers.

Before I moved to the US I knew Americans called them sneakers (perhaps from Back to the Future? Seinfeld? Is that possible?), and it felt slightly pejorative (sneaking, as you say). But my first 5 years in the US were spent in Denver and I never once picked up that it wasn’t sneakers. Maybe I was stubbornly holding on to “trainers” and didn’t pay attention to whatever else I might have heard. Maybe I moved in the wrong circles. Or maybe I’m even less aware of the world around me than I imagined 😬 To be honest, after 25 years of living here, this is my first time learning that it’s not always sneakers this side of the pond.

David Horn

Yes - also growing up in England it was plimsolls (which I think was a school specific type of shoe ... black, very bendy, low-rise, generally a flimsy shoe) and then trainers. When I lived in the US (CA and NYC) I think I stuck with trainers at first and then 'sneakers' when I moved east.

Now, I live in Northern Ireland and it's definitely 'runners' ahead of anything else.

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Marc LaFoy

Western Canadian here. Runners.

Lisa S.

I can confirm from BC -- definitely "runners". I grew up in the States, though, and grew up saying "tennis shoes". I recently realized that I'd put "runners" on my Christmas wish list and my American family probably thought I was asking for a long piece of cloth to put on my dining room table or something.

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Paolo Palombo

Tough to compare across different languages, but for what is worth, I grew up in Italy and we called them ‘scarpe da ginnastica’, which translates to ‘gym shoes’.
I have been living in the US since 2000, in Florida and Georgia, but I honestly never realized that most people call them tennis shoes. I heard the term sneakers in movies, and I thought that was the right term. I learned something new.

Kapuku

I'm from South Florida, which in nearly every one of these dialect maps is a strange anomaly. Sneaker territory. We also say Interstate instead of Freeway or Expressway or (since I now live in NYC) the unforgiveable "Highway".

David Nir

I mean, they call obsessive collectors "sneakerheads," not "tennisshoeheads," so...

Matt S

Having grown up in a gym shoe enclave, I had no idea it was so limited in usage. I also would have guessed that sneakers were more popular than tennis shoes.

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