The Strange Roots

Boot 🥾

Boot, meaning to start a computer, stems from the phrase 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps'.

The phrase is attributed to Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, the 1781 satirical novel by Rudolf Erich Raspe. In the book, the Baron recalls a number of tall tales including pulling himself out of a swamp by his own hair.

A century after Raspe's book was published, Nimrod Murphee was ridiculed by the Workingman’s Advocate newspaper for claiming he had discovered perpetual motion. Clearly influenced by the tales of Baron Munchausen, a journalist wrote: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barnyard fence, by the straps of his boots.” This led to the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, initially implying an impossible task but later meaning to improve your situation by your own efforts and without assistance.

At some point in the 1950s the phrase was borrowed in computing for the ‘bootstrap routine', the process of pushing a button to kickstart a chain of events, starting with a simple program that executes larger and more complicated programs along the chain - thus improving itself by its own means - or ‘pulling itself up by its bootstraps’. The name for the process was later shortened to boot and also gives up reboot, meaning to restart a machine.