Boots and Booty

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The noun boot, meaning “a covering for the foot and lower part of the leg,” has been in the language since the early 14th century. The word existed in medieval Latin and entered English via French.

The popularity of boots as footwear has never diminished, but our use of the word boot and similar forms doesn’t always pertain to the article of apparel.

First let’s look at terms and expressions that do relate to footwear.

bootleg: As a noun, bootleg is recorded in the 17th century with the meaning “the leg of a boot.” Nineteenth century American frontiersmen favored bootlegs as convenient places to carry knives and shooting irons. The term acquired its present associations with the illicit trading of liquor even before Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920; a handful of states outlawed alcoholic beverages earlier. For example, Kansas banned alcohol in 1881. A bootleg could conceal a small bottle of liquor.

In current usage, bootleg denotes anything that is traded or trafficked illicitly: bootleg CDs, bootleg diamonds, bootleg babies, etc. As a verb, bootleg means “to traffic illicitly in liquor or anything else.” The verb bootleg is also an American football term meaning “to carry the ball deceptively.”

bootstrap: as a noun, a bootstrap is a loop attached to the top of a boot to help the wearer pull on the boot. I’ve written about the figurative meanings of bootstrap here.

boot camp: This is a term for U.S. Marine and Navy recruit training. The term boot as slang for recruit may date from the Spanish-American War. U.S. sailors wore leggings called boots and the term transferred to the sailors themselves. By extension, boot camp is now also used for any training camp or program that resembles boot camp by requiring rigorous training. The term can also refer specifically to a facility or program for juvenile offenders who are forced to follow a rigidly structured routine of drill and discipline.

bootlicker: A cringing, favor-seeking toady is called a bootlicker: a person who would do any demeaning thing to please and flatter a person in power. You can find more terms for subservient people here.

jackboot: a type of large, strong cavalry boot popular in the 17th and 18th centuries was called a jackboot; later it was worn by German military and paramilitary units during the Nazi regime. Even before its association with the Nazis, the term had acquired the connotation of military oppression.

boot: As a verb, “to boot” can mean “to kick,” as in “They booted out the old superintendent and hired a new one.” As a verb in the context of computer use, boot derives from bootstrap.

to boot: We still use the expression “to boot” with the meaning “in addition” or “as a bonus”:

The guy’s a chronic complainer and a tightwad to boot.

The most patient and behaved dog in the world (and she’s Irish to boot).

We offer inexpensive prices for our AC and heating units and we will throw in a free thermostat to boot!

The expression “to boot” comes from an obsolete noun boot, meaning “good, profit, advantage.” The related verb boot meant “to make better, to remedy.” You may have encountered the verb boot in Shakespeare:

It shall scarce boot me
To say “Not guilty.” Hermione, A Winter’s Tale, III.ii.24.

booty: As a noun meaning “plunder, gain, profit,” booty comes from an Old French word, butin.

As a noun meaning “a woman’s body (or a part thereof) as a sex object,” booty originated as 1920s black slang, possibly an alteration of another slang word, botty, meaning bottom or buttocks.

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9 thoughts on “Boots and Booty”

  1. Where I come from, we also “give someone the boot”. This refers to kicking someone out of a position or place. An example:
    “We hired a new guy but he just couldn’t do the job. So we gave him the boot.” In this case, it would mean firing him.

  2. Don’t forget about the term “reboot” — to start over, start again, or refresh. It’s long since moved from a computer-only term to general usage.

  3. The word “bootstrap” in computers comes from the name of an old-style (and simple) program called the “BOOTSTRAP LOADER”. The SOLE function of the bootstrap loader was to load a much larger program called the “loader”. The loader was necessary for installing any other kind of program or data into the computer’s memory. Loading a computer’s memory is a nontrivial process.

    The bootstrap loader had to be loaded into the computer by hand by using switches on its front panel. If the contents of the computer’s memory were ever lost, then the whole tedious step-by-step process had to be done all over again.

    Then when things like floppy discs came along (the A: drive), things were made easier by making a method for booting up the computer by using one or more floppy discs. There might have been a way (earlier) to do this from a magnetic tape or from a punched paper tape on a Teletype terminal.

    Summary: all of the terminology about booting up or rebooting computers stems back to the Bootstrap Loader. If you can understand all of this, then you are booted up and ready to go! Cheers!


  4. Great post. I had never thought about the origins of bootleg or jackboot.

    D.A.W., before floppy disks, there were hard disc platters, cassette tapes, and reel-to-reel tapes. The built-in bootstrap functions for those (and for floppies) was possible because of schemes such as magnetic core, discrete RTL arrays, and eventually, PROMs (Programmable Read-Only Memory chips). Back in the day, I spent many hours erasing EPROMs (Erasable PROMs) with ultraviolet lights and then re-programming them by hand.

  5. And the term “bootstrap” in computer-ese comes directly from the previous extended meaning of bootstrap– something to help get things started, going, loaded, etc. be it a a foot or a larger program. There is nothing unique about the computer-related term.

  6. Well, there’s also the British vernacular, i.e. the “boot” of a car meaning the trunk. And the Canadian definition in which “a boot” means *in regard to* or *has to do with*, e.g., “That book is a boot the history of Canada”, or “What should we do a boot our accents?”

  7. I think that some people, in some dialects, say “a boot” when they mean “about” in Standard English.
    “Here a boot there are venomous snakes!”

  8. To Mr. Wheeler:
    I have read that back before magnetic core memory for computers, there were devices called “magnetic drum” memories, where the drum was a kind of a magnetic cylinder (like a very small oil drum) that spun mechanically.
    I have read about the early models of the A – 6 INTRUDER attack place of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. That was a two-man attack plane with one pilot and one bombardier-navigator. The A – 6 contained an early model of an airborne digital computer, and that was installed near the feet of the bombardier.
    Nearly everything in a warplane has a troubleshooting checklist, and one item on the checklist for an uncooperative computer was for the bombardier to give it a good kick with his foot!

    I suppose that was to unstick a magnetic drum that wasn’t spinning any more. The A – 6 is long, long out of service except maybe in the EA – 6B PROWLER electronic warfare model (basically, a radar jammer). I don’t know if all of those have been replaced by the new EA – 18 plane, yet, and even in that case, the EA – 6Bs might have been turned over to the Air Force for a while before they are scrapped.
    When I was studying electrical engineering in the mid-1970s, electronic RAM chips using MOSFETs were coming into use, but they were MUCH smaller than anything that we have now.

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