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Boot

Q From Shirley Willett, Robert E Thompson, and others: Would you extend your recent answer to the question about to boot? I’ve love to know how this developed into to boot a computer (or reboot one).

A There’s actually no connection between these computing terms and the phrase to boot that I wrote about recently, which means “in addition, besides, moreover”.

For the computer sense, we have to think of footwear, in particular the saying “to lift oneself by one’s own bootstraps”. That’s hardly a practical proposition, but it does give the intended idea of a person achieving success by his own, unaided efforts. A bootstrap is not a bootlace, by the way, but a pair of loops inside the top of a heavy riding boot, something to pull on to get the foot past that awkward bend at the ankle.

The idea of lifting oneself off the ground by pulling on them is sometimes said to date back to a tall story included by the German writer Rudolph Raspe in his book of 1785, Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, in which the famous Baron saved himself by this incredible feat. Some versions of Rudolph Raspe’s book include an incident in which he hauls himself (and his horse) out of the mud by lifting himself by his own hair. This is so similar an idea that it is highly likely that it is indeed the source. But somewhere along the way the story became modified to refer to bootstraps — this seems to have originated in the USA early in the nineteenth century; at least, the phrase was well known in that country by the 1860s.

In the early days of computing, in the early 1950s, the phrase was borrowed to describe the tortuous process of getting a computer to start. Since many computer pioneers were avid science-fiction readers, the immediate stimulus may have been a well-known and cleverly crafted Robert Heinlein time-travel short story of 1941 called By His Bootstraps.

The process of bootstrapping a computer involved reading in a short program, either by pressing keys on the console or reading them from paper tape. This series of commands was just powerful enough to read in a slightly more complicated program, say from punched cards. In turn, this was just sufficiently complex to load the whole operating system. Modern personal computers still do something a bit like this: when you turn one on, it first runs a program that is permanently wired into a chip in the machine. This loads a small start-up program from disk, which in turn loads the main operating system.

(A similar process is that of getting a towing hawser from one ship to another at sea. The hawser is far too heavy and stiff to pass across on its own, so seamen first send over a light line. Pulling on this brings over a succession of heavier ropes, the last of which is stout enough to carry the weight of the hawser itself.)

Computer people borrowed the idea of lifting oneself by one’s own bootstraps for this process of starting the computer up. In the early days, the initial bit of program code was called a bootstrap loader, but this was soon abbreviated, first to bootstrap, and then to the verb to boot. Reboot, for repeating the process, followed shortly afterwards.

Those of us tempted by recalcitrant electronics to give our computers a swift kick in a vital place (for which the technical term is percussive maintenance) are just returning to the original, literal sense of boot ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Feb. 2002

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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: 2 February 2002.