Booting and browsing

Every wondered why it is that you ‘boot’ a computer? Especially considering that the only other meaning of ‘boot’ as a verb is ‘give something a good kick’? The answer lies in a very nice bit of contemporary etymology: the great Catch 22 of the early days of computing was that computers needed code to get going, but couldn’t get going without code. The solution was to give them just enough code to start processing more, increasingly complex code. This initial dosing enabled the computer to pull itself up by its bootstraps, as it were. Can you see where this is going? (‘To pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ is a paradoxical English expression, meaning to get out of a tricky situation through one’s own efforts. It is commonly used to describe someone who is successful despite having had an underprivileged start in life.) So, the process of starting up a computer became known as ‘bootstrapping’, hence ‘booting’, hence ‘to boot’.

In Spanish, ‘to boot’ was rendered literally as ‘bootear’, a neologism formed by splicing the verb ending ‘ear’ to the English word (compare ‘googlear’, to google). It later became ‘botar’, which means ‘to launch a boat’. We could speculate that this change came about for two reasons: first, most obviously, because ‘botar’ was an already-existing verb, which sounded a lot like botear (could this be an eggcorn?); and secondly, because the original meaning adapted itself rather nicely to its new use. This elegant term was later replaced, however, by the more functional ‘arrancar’, the verb you use to start a car, which is currently vying for dominance with the infinitely blander ‘iniciar’ (as favoured by Microsoft).

I want to conclude with a tangentially related crop of words. In English, you can ‘browse’ the web, an elaboration of the use of browse to mean ‘flick idly through a book’. The base meaning of the word browse is ‘to feed on buds’, as do giraffes, for example, and its extension to the internet is rather a whimsical, poetic use of language. In Spanish, the verb ‘hojear’ is used to describe aimless flicking through a book or magazine – it is the verb from ‘hoja’, meaning leaf, and can be translated directly into English using ‘to leaf’ or French by ‘feuilleter’. Any suggestions as to why there is such a proliferation of foliage-related vocabulary to describe the act of perusal?