Q From Peter Needham: Do you have any clues as to where the odd American term boot camp comes from? The meaning seems to have spread to correctional “short sharp shock” facilities, but I’d imagine it is from the military originally. Is it because new recruits wear boots? They wear a lot of other stuff as well. It seems an odd term.
A It’s definitely a services term. Dictionaries often suggest, following the current entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, that it dates from the Second World War period, but it’s easy to find examples dating back to the First World War. The earliest I know about is one dated 1916 that’s cited by Jonathan Lighter in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. This is a slightly later reference:
The fellows are kind of rusty on this wash the clothes stuff because they haven’t done much of it since they came out of the boot camp, which is another name for a training station.
Galveston Daily News, 16 May 1918.
This is in a column headed “Marine Corps Musings”. It and other examples confirm Professor Lighter’s finding that it was at first a term of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps (it continued to be used solely in those services until after the Second World War, I’ve been told). It derives from a slightly older slang term boot for a recruit in basic training or an inexperienced enlisted man, on record from 1911.
Why this should have appeared is uncertain. While it’s true that new recruits were issued boots at the start of basic training and seemed to spend much of the rest of their time breaking them in, I agree with you that this seems a slim basis for the invention.
There is a persistent legend that it appeared during the Spanish-American War of 1898, or at least around that period. Two versions are told. One has it that sailors’ leggings were known as boots and that the term was transferred to recruits. Another version turned up half a century ago in the Words, Wit and Wisdom column written by William Morris; he quoted a letter that he had received from C E Reynolds, a retired Navy radio chief:
“When I entered the Navy in 1911,” he writes, “an old-timer called me a ‘rubber-boot sailor.’ When I asked for an explanation, he told me that prior to about 1890 all the men prided themselves on getting out on deck and scrubbing down barefooted in the coldest weather. Then there was an influx of kids from the midwest. They didn’t intend to act foolish, so they went ashore and bought boots to wear when it was cold. The older hands sneered and called them ‘rubber boot sailors.’ By the time I came on the scene, they had shortened the nickname for recruits to ‘rubber boots.’ That gradually was shortened and by World War I we just said ‘boots.’”
Reno Evening Gazette, 16 May 1962.
I’ve not been able to find a contemporary example of rubber-boot sailor but Mr Reynolds’s recollection is first-hand, is so tightly dated, and fits so well with other early examples of boot for naval recruits, that we must take his suggested origin seriously. Certainly, as matters stand, it’s the best we can hope for.