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The Scrivener: Booting Your Files

Brian Barratt explores the various meanings down the centuries of the word “boot’’.

This is the second article in a 10-part series.

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Homonyms: Words which have several meanings, 2
Boots are more or less like shoes but they extend above the ankles. You put boots on your feet. You put luggage into the boot of your car (or, if you live in the USA, you put it into the trunk of your car). And you boot up your computer. So here's another set of homonyms we can explore!

The footwear word came into English in about the 14th century from Old French bote. Its earlier history is not known for certain, but it might be related to butt, meaning something blunt and stumpy. It might also be somehow related to the next meaning of boot.

In the 17th century, the same word denoted a fixed storage space on the outside of a coach, This was adopted in the 18th century to mean spaces, boxes, beneath the seats of the driver and guard, where luggage could be stored. This meaning was later applied to the boot of a motor car.

But how is it that we boot up a computer? Well, footwear comes into this one, too. In the 19th century, a bootstrap was attached to a boot to help you pull it on. To bootstrap was to go through the first part of the procedure of putting on one's boots. In the early 1960s, the term was adopted to denote the process of getting a computer ready for work.

Boot used to have another meaning related to "advantage" or to something given as extra to what was already there. An example of this usage is in a statement such as "This food is rich and tasty, and colourful to boot". This usage had an entirely different origin and history. In this case, boot comes from Old English bot, benefit, compensation.

Middle English had bote, meaning remedy, repair. The remedial meaning of boot appears as early as about 725 AD in the saga Beowulf, chapter 14:
Ðæt wæs ungeara þæt ic ænigra me
weana ne wende to widan feore
bote gebidan...
It was but recently
that I was in great misery [I was in despair of ever]
receiving a remedy...

It appears in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, e.g., The Squire's Tale:
She shal eek knowe, and whome it wol do boote
She shall soon know, and whom it will cure.

The "something extra" meaning appears in Shakespeare's King Henry IV Part 1:
Now, by my sceptre, and my soul to boot,
He hath more worthy interest to the state
Than thou,

Meanwhile, after you have put your boots on in the morning, and booted up your computer, you will probably want to open a file.

File is another word with an interesting history. It came into English in the 16th century from the French verb filer, to string on a thread. This relates to storing documents by tying them together with string. It comes originally from the Latin filum, meaning thread, from which we also get our word filament. In Middle English, fildor meant thread of gold.

A file was also a list, as in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, where a list of special qualities is compared to a general catalogue:
Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, waterrugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs. The valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed, whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike; and so of men.
Now if you have a station in the file,
Not i' the worst rank of manhood, say it,

File as the name of a tool comes from a different source. The hand-tool used for smoothing rough surfaces gets its name from Old English fil and feol, related to Old High German fihala and has its roots in the Greek pikros, bitter, sharp.

Chaucer writes about tools in The Canterbury Tales, The Knight's Tale:
The frothing steeds, champing the golden bridle,
And the quick smiths, and armourers also,
With file and hammer spurring to and fro;
Yeoman, and peasants with short staves were out,
Crowding as thick as they could move about;

In Middle English, file could also mean a worthless person. This meaning came from Old English fylan and ful, from which we also get our words foul and defile. Fool is related to these words, too.

From the late 16th century, file also referred to a row of people, hence the phrase "rank and file" meaning soldiers and non-commissioned officers, who were the followers rather than the leaders in military action. File related to people standing behind each other. At least it's easier to spell than "queue".

This compilation © Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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