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Ever wondered why we ‘boot’ a computer?

Why we boot a computer!

Ever wondered why it is that you ‘boot’ a computer? Especially considering that the only other meaning of ‘boot’ as a verb, is to ‘give something a good kick’? The answer lies in a very nice bit of contemporary etymology: the great challenge in the early days of computing was that computers needed code to get started, but couldn’t start 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 whimsical 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. Curiously, this expression originally meant ‘something impossible’ and was used sarcastically — over time it evolved into words of encouragement. Even curiouser, the same expression inspired the name of the mathematical “Bootstrap Method” of analysing statistics.

So, the process of starting up a computer became known as “bootstrapping”. This was later shortened to “booting”, and hence “to boot” a computer.

But how to translate that?

In Spanish, ‘to boot’ was rendered literally as ‘bootear’, a neologism formed by splicing the verb ending ‘ear’ to the English word boot (as with, ‘googlear’, to google). It was later replaced with ‘botar’, which means ‘to launch a boat’. We can only speculate, but probably this change came about for two reasons. First, most obviously, because ‘botar’ was an already-existing verb, and ‘bootear’ sounded a lot like ‘botear’ (could this be an eggcorn?). Secondly, because the original meaning adapted itself rather nicely to its new use. However, sadly this elegant term was later replaced 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).

Why do we ‘browse’ the web?

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. Its extension to the internet is also a rather whimsical, poetic use of language. In Spanish, the verb ‘hojear’ is used to describe aimless flicking through a book or magazine — it is a 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?!

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