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Q From Jeff Martin: How did bootleg come to mean something of illegal manufacture?

A It’s a surprisingly late coinage, first being recorded from Omaha, Nebraska in 1889 (with the related bootlegger being recorded in Oklahoma the same year). Prohibition gave it a huge boost, of course.

Bootleg was at first a literal term. In the days when horsemen wore long boots, their bootlegs were good places to hide things. For example, this description comes from The War in Kansas by G Douglas Brewerton of 1856: “He sports a sky-blue blanket overcoat (a favorite color in Missouri), from the side-pocket of which the butt of a six-shooter peeps threateningly out, and if you will take a look into his right bootleg, we should say that a serviceable bowie-knife might be found inserted between the leather and his tucked-in Kentucky jean pantaloons”.

By an obvious-enough figurative extension, illicit goods that had to be kept hidden were referred to as bootleg commodities. The word seems to have been applied specifically to alcohol at first (again, Prohibition helped that association greatly), though more recently its application has broadened to encompass a whole range of other illicit or pirated goods.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Nov. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 November 2001.