The Grammarphobia Blog

For medicinal purposes only!

Q: I’m dying to know the answer to this question: What is the origin of the term “bootleg”? My mom (an English teacher) says it means illegal, but I say it’s just the vertical part of a boot.

A: You’re both right.

The first published citations for “bootleg” in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from the early 17th century, refer to a noun meaning the leg of a tall boot. The most recent (fourth) edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes this meaning.

By the late 19th century, the adjective “bootleg” and the noun “bootlegger” were being used to refer to illicit trading in liquor, according to the OED. The verb “bootleg” (as in to smuggle liquor) followed in the early 20th century. I wonder, however, how much booze a smuggler could hide in his bootlegs.

The OED‘s first citation for the liquor usage, an 1889 report in the Omaha Herald, quips that the whiskey consumed in my home state, Iowa, was “for medical purposes only” and “on the boot-leg plan.” Ouch!

In the early 20th century, the term “bootleg” came to be used for other illicit products, including books and food. By the end of the century, it also referred to unauthorized records, tapes, and so on, as well as to a football play in which the quarterback pretends to hand off the ball, but continues to carry it hidden near his hip. The QB could use hip boots!

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.