If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re waiting for the inevitable next step or conclusion to a situation or a conversation. In other words, you are waiting for the unexpected that is expected albeit unknown.
The reason for this is because it’s human nature to create patterns that makes sense to human brains, and when the anticipated pattern is disrupted, it causes anxiety. When the pattern is concluded, for good or for bad, the human experience is that the person anticipating the next step or the conclusion is able to move forward. Unfortunately, that next step or conclusion is almost invariably thought of as being bad.
The Reading Eagle newspaper edition of November 20, 2005 published a story about the community of Plum in Allegheny County entitled, “U.S. Grand Jury Probe Heats Up Borough’s Ongoing Police Mess.” From reading the article, it would seem that at the time, there were a lot of problems and a lot of blame to go around. The police department had been besieged by scandals and lawsuits over a period of years, and all the details were spilling out all over the media. It became so involved that even after the former police chief won a large sum in damages and back pay from a lawsuit he filed against the city claiming wrongful firing. Well into the article, this paragraph used the idiom.
Thomas Ceraso, attorney for the ex-chief’s son, Detective Mark Focareta said an FBI request that his client provide a handwriting sample was postponed indefinitely, leaving him “scratching his head and waiting for the other shoe to drop, if it’s ever dropping.”
Back on June 6, 1986, Associated Press business writer, Steven Rosenfeld discussed the rampant speculation on the trading in securities on Wall Street that had been based on knowledge of confidential merger plans. After Dennis Levine pleaded guilty to four counts of securities fraud, tax evasion, and perjury, the business world was abuzz about who else was involved. The article was titled, “Street Waits For The Other Shoe To Drop” and began with this paragraph:
Wall Street is anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop after an investment banker pleaded guilty to fraud and promised to cooperate with authorities in the biggest case yet of illicit insider trading.
Likewise, on April 22, 1944, the Pittsburgh Press published an article by Scripps-Howard Foreign Editor, William Philip Simms, that chronicled what the allies were doing to the Nazi forces. The article was titled, “Germans In France Waiting For Other Shoe To Drop” and the first paragraph read thusly:
The Germans in France have the “invasion jitters” according to a recently-arrived underground leader. The malady he said is akin to that induced by waiting for the other shoe to drop, but multiplied a thousand fold. The first “shoe,” he said, was the terrific pounding the British and American Air Forces are dealing out daily to Germany and the invasion coast.”
A generation earlier, on March 20, 1921 the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Noise And Your Neighbors” written by Helen Bullitt Lowry. Her article discussed a situation where a John Howells (son of the late Dean Howells) rented an apartment — in the building at 130 West Fifty-seventh Street — to Mrs. R.T. Wilson Jr., a woman who gave musicales that oftentimes lasted until nearly 4 o’clock in the morning to the dismay of her neighbors.
When she was taken to court by neighbors, her argument was that the noise was of a high-class nature, and asserting that having a studio apartment in itself implied that she had every right to hold musicales until well after midnight. Her neighbors’ argument was that it made no difference whether the music was good or bad, high-class or low brow, at 4 o’clock in the morning, no noise, expensive or otherwise, should be permitted in apartments at such an hour.
The article concluded with this paragraph:
If nine out of ten of us weren’t trying to be considerate the housing problem would be over in New York. Like the gingham dog and the calico cat, we would all have eaten each other up and there’d be nobody left in town but the delegates to conventions. If nine out of ten of us hadn’t heard that ‘drop that other shoe’ chestnut and molded our lives accordingly for the sake of the neighbor below us, what would be the end of us? Both the sleepy artist and the giver of late parties would be in a bad way.
The writer of the article referred to the idiom as a chestnut meaning it was old and well-used by the time it was included in her narrative.
Some say that the reason it was an old chestnut is because, during the manufacturing boom of the mid 19th century (beginning in 1843 with an upswing in economic activity in the U.S.), apartment buildings went up with each floor being identical in design so that all the kitchens lined up with each other, all the livingrooms lined up with each other, and, of course, all the bedrooms lined up with each other.
If a tenant was already in bed when the tenant upstairs decided to go to bed, the tenant in the apartment below would hear the first shoe drop, and once he or she heard the second shoe drop, the noise was done for the night. Of course, this was because the floors, walls, and ceilings weren’t sound-proofed at all.
The literal expression — with the accompanying trepidation that is associated with the idiom — is found in a news article entitled, “Had Waited And Waited” published in the Sentinel Hotel Column of the August 11, 1905 edition of the Daily Gazette in Janesville, Wisconsin. The article recounts how a hotel guest was given a room directly above the room of a particularly nervous regular boarder, and advised of the situation.
When it came time for the guest to sleep, he took of one shoe and allowed it to drop to the floor. He suddenly remembered what he had been told about the nervous boarder in the room below, and he very quietly took his other shoe off and carefully set it down beside its mate. As he was dropping off to sleep, there was a knock at his door so he rose to answer it. The article ended with this:
“I trust you will pardon me for disturbing you, sir,” he said, “but I have the room below you and am an exceptionally nervous man. I heard you drop your shoe some time ago, and ever since I have tried in vain to go to sleep. I fear I shall be unable to do so unless I hear you drop the other one, if it will not be too much trouble.”
It’s unlikely that there is an earlier published version of this idiom, however, if readers or visitors know of one, feel free to share the link in the Comments section below.