English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

This boot’s not made for walkin’

Q: Your recent post about “my foot” has left me wondering about another expression involving feet: “to boot.” Your thoughts?

A: The “boot” in the phrase “to boot” has nothing to do with footwear or feet. It’s entirely unrelated to the more recent English word “boot,” the one that may give you blisters.

The original “boot” is an extremely old noun that was used in Anglo-Saxon times to mean “advantage,” “good,” “profit,” or “remedy,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is long dead, for the most part. It survives in the adjective “bootless” (helpless or ineffectual) and the phrase “to boot,” which the OED defines as “to the good,” “to advantage,” “into the bargain,” “in addition,” “besides,” and “moreover.”

“Boot” appears in many Old English manuscripts and may date from as far back as the early 700s. But its ultimate source is older than written language.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this “boot” can be traced to a prehistoric Germanic root, reconstructed as bat-, which is also the source of the Old English betera (“better”) and betest (“best”).

That same ancient root is also the source, the OED says, of the obsolete verb “beet,” which once meant to make good or make amends, and of the old noun “bot,” meaning compensation.

From earliest times, this “boot” was used alone as well as in the phrase “to boot.”

The word is used alone (written bote) to mean a medicinal cure or remedy in the Old English poem Elene, written by Cynewulf sometime between 750 and the late 800s, the OED says.

And it appears (as bot) in Beowulf, which may date from 725, in the sense of compensation paid for injury or wrongdoing.

The earliest citation in the OED for “to boot” (spelled to bote) is from Daniel, an anonymous and undated Old English poem inspired by the biblical Book of Daniel. But these later citations are easier to understand:

“A hundreth knyghtes mo … and four hundreth to bote, squieres of gode aray.” (From the Chronicle of Robert Mannyng, 1330.)

“Bi assent of sondry partyes and syluer to bote.” (From Piers Plowman, by William Langland, 1377.)

“For two books that I had and 6s. 6d to boot, I had my great book of songs.” (From Samuel Pepys’s Diary, 1660.)

As we mentioned above, the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective “good”—that is, “better” and “best”—are derived from the same source as the nearly defunct “boot.”

So while English virtually abandoned the old “boot,” it kept relatives of that word for the comparative and superlative forms of “good.”

That raises a question. Why didn’t English simply adopt “gooder” and “goodest” instead of “better” and “best”? Again, the OED has the answer.

The adjective “good” never did have “regular comparative or superlative” forms in the Germanic languages, Oxford says.

“These were supplied,” the dictionary says, “by formations from the common base of better adj. and best adj.”—in other words, from the ancient Germanic root bat-.

Similar irregular patterns, the OED adds, show up in “adjectives of comparable meaning in other Indo-European languages.” Oxford mentions one such sequence—the classical Latin bonus (good), melior (better) and optimus (best).

In short,“gooder” and “goodest” were never standard in English. However, Oxford says, they did “occasionally occur from early modern English onwards, often in jocular or playful language.”

Now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of “to boot,” you’re probably wondering about the other “boot,” the one that is made for walking.

This “boot” dates from the early 14th century, when it was borrowed from Old French (bote) and meant a sort of shoe, usually of leather, extending above the ankle.

The origins of the French word are uncertain, according to several etymological dictionaries, though there were similar forms in other languages—bota (Provençal, Portuguese, Spanish), and botta (medieval Latin).

A related sense of “boot”—it now means the trunk of a car in British English—is older than you might think.

Since as far back as 1608, according to OED citations, “boot” has been used to mean part of a horse-drawn coach. And since 1781 it’s meant a place to store luggage and cargo.

One final note. The 19th-century noun “bootstrap” is self-explanatory—a strap for pulling a boot on.

What’s interesting is that this noun was used in the early 1950s in computing to mean a fixed sequence of instructions that would initiate the loading of an operating system.

The term was first recorded, according to OED citations, in 1953 in Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers:

“A technique sometimes called the ‘bootstrap technique.’ Pushing the load button … causes one full word to be loaded into a memory address previously set up … after which the program control is directed to that memory address and the computer starts automatically.”

(The computer usage was probably influenced by the expression “pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” or more directly perhaps by Robert Heinlein’s 1941 time-travel short story By His Bootstraps.)

In the 1970s and ’80s the word was eventually shortened to “boot” (both noun and verb), and today it’s a household word—at least in houses that have computers.

If you’d like to read more, we had a post last year that discusses the history of the word “booty” in its various incarnations. One would assume that pirates’ “booty” would be related to the “boot” that means profit, but so far no connection has been proved.

[Update. A reader writes on August 26, 2015: “Thought you might be interested to know that the term ‘boot’ is very much alive in the tax accounting field. When two parties exchange property, ‘boot’ is the additional amount of cash or property one party receives to make the value of the exchange equal.”]

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