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When this column began in June of 1995, I used to get several letters a week. Remember letters? Now I get a few letters a year, but lots of e-mails:
Chris from South Harpswell sent the second letter of 2016 so I had to take notice. He writes, “John, I’ve read your column for years now but have never written before. I just had to write when the following question popped into my head.
My wife, Becky, and I were at the mall the other day (but our other habits are good) and I found myself in a shoe department. While waiting for Becky to find the shoes she wanted – assuming they exist -- I heard a customer ask the salesman if she could have her foot measured with the “foot thingy.”
Although I knew and the salesman knew exactly what she was talking about, I also knew that the strange metal gizmo she was asking for more than likely had a more formal name than ‘foot thingy.’
When I had a chance I asked the salesman what ‘the foot thingy’ was really called. He said he had no clue because he usually worked in hardware and was only helping out in shoes because of the Christmas rush.
Right then, John, I thought I finally had a reason to write you. I’ve always figured you to be something of a “word” man and I also figured if anyone could tell me what the real name for the ‘foot thingy’ was – it would be you.
So my question this morning is simple but important. What’s the ‘foot thingy’ really called, John?”
Thanks for the letter, Chris. Some people with a thinner hide than mine might feel a tad insulted being asked such a seemingly numb question. But, most people are aware that as a radio talk show host and columnist I’m required to know everything, and I’m also supposed to stock my head with some of the most useless information that ever the mind of man or woman collected.
The fact is, Chris, I DO know what the “foot thingy” is called and I’m not ashamed to admit that I know a lot more.
I was once in a shoe store waiting to be served when I heard a salesman ask a colleague: “Mike, where’s the Brannick Device?” A few minutes later the colleague appeared holding a “foot thingy.”
Later, when I asked the salesman about the device’s name he said he had no idea where the name came from and then asked if he could get me a pair of shoes.
While being fitted for a pair of hiking boots I noticed that the name was printed right there on the thingy – Brannack Device. Like you said, Chris, I am something of a word man, so I took out my low-tech Palm Pilot (a pad and pencil) and wrote down the name.
Then I decided to do a little research. I figured the name was probably that of the inventor, like the Maine-made device the peavey, used by loggers. That clever tool was named after its inventor, Joseph Peavey of Bangor.
Turns out the Brannock Device was patented in 1927 by Charles F. Brannock who was a student at Syracuse University. As you might expect, Charles’ folks were “foot people” and owned a shoe store in Syracuse. They say his prototype device was made from metal parts from his boyhood erector set.
Brannock’s clever device has changed little in almost 80 years but the company is thinking of coming out with a digital Brannock Device. The “foot thingy” goes digital. Is this a great country, or what?
I hope you appreciate the fact, Chris, that I answered your question without using any lame references like, “if the shoe fits,” or ‘starting off on the right foot.”
But there I go, putting my foot in my mouth.

JJohn McDonald is a humorist and storyteller
who performs regularly throughout New England.
Contact John at or 899-1868.
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