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In a letter of Bertrand Russell there is this sentence:

I threw the tin in the air and exclaimed out loud 'Great God in boots, the ontological argument is sound.'

What's the meaning of 'Great God in boots'?

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    It very likely was Russell's invention -- just another minced oath. – Hot Licks Jan 27 '16 at 14:16
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    @HotLicks Given that it is collocated with the ontological argument (in Russell's autobiography), I think every word in that oath (yes, it appears to be one) seems to be very much intended. Note also that this is taken from his autobiography, written many years later. – anemone Jan 27 '16 at 14:47
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    @anemone -- I didn't say it wasn't intended, I simply said that Russell probably invented it, and it did not become idiomatic. – Hot Licks Jan 27 '16 at 19:27
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It may be that "God in boots" is a way of saying "God in human form," since to be in boots is to be in the trappings of a human being. A Google Books search for "God in boots" turns up multiple instances of Russell's exclamation—and one earlier instance, from a periodical published in Chicago, Illinois, called The Flaming Sword, mouthpiece of "Koresh, the Founder of the Koreshan System." It is the title of a poem by Amanda Potter that appears in The Flaming Sword of November 25, 1898:

God in Boots

The world's "shocking!" is sometimes the echo of an irrational canonic exploded.

Do you demand instance? Note Fashion disport i' the wave:

Let's play that five minutes later, the whole semi-un-dressedness is invading her parlour.

Well? Now she is shocked—has cried the law on them!

Such decisions render one not only appellant, but banish the timid tongue:

God wears gear befitting feet, though it shock the universe of Grundy.

The Christ wore sandal. If you're curious study the styles since Adam.

Feet speak their use, and proclaim God walks through the ages.

Not always cognizant of the raiment of His tabernacle or tent, God walks through the ages.

Et cetera.

It seems highly unlikely that Bertrand Russell was conversant with "the literature of Koreshanity" (as the publication refers to its content and to that of like-minded authors), though the informing idea may be coincidentally the same. But I strongly suspect that Russell was not expressing the idea piously, as (I get the impression) Amanda Potter was.

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  • Good find. 'Great God in boots' gives me a towering impression. But it may have been just lack of tobacco. – anemone Jan 28 '16 at 8:19
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It is just an exclamation, in this case expressing possibly surprise and delight, similar to (but possibly more forcibly than) saying My word! or My Goodness!

It has no intrinsic meaning of its own.

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  • @Carl E, Could it be replaced by 'Oh my God!' ? Does 'in boots' convey a sense of power related to God, something like 'the Almighty' ? – alex Jan 27 '16 at 14:10
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    @alex: It is a clear breach of the Third Commandment any way you look at it. – Ricky Jan 27 '16 at 14:11
  • @ Ricky: At this stage of his life, Russell is trying to believe in a God like the one proposed by Spinoza or Neo-Hegelian school. – alex Jan 27 '16 at 14:21
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    @alex, if the exclamation were written today it might read Christ on a bike! and would be just as intrinsically meaningless. I very much doubt that the adult Russell ever worried about invoking the power of an Almighty he clearly didn't believe in. – Charl E Jan 27 '16 at 14:43
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I think (but cannot prove) that the boots are a status symbol.

Russell reports, in his autobiography, to have uttered this exclamation in connection with an ontological argument:

Bertrand Russell, during his early Hegelian phase, accepted the argument; once exclaiming: "Great God in Boots!—the ontological argument is sound!" However, he later criticized the argument, asserting that "the argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." He drew a distinction between existence and essence, arguing that the essence of a person can be described and their existence still remain in question.

[Wikipedia: Ontological argument]

Since an ontological argument argues the existence of God, it is symbolic to endow God with a pair of boots in such an exclamation; see this article.

I think it is ultimately a fine, self-referential joke on Russell's part (note he reports it himself; it may in fact have never happened).

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  • It's very interesting. So, is it safe to say that 'boots' is a symbol of power? – alex Jan 27 '16 at 14:37
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    @alex As I said, this is my conjecture, based on a conviction that "God in boots" is simply not a fixed collocation, but rather, appears to be Russell's invention. What we know is that this little story comes from Russell's autobiography; i.e., he reports his own speech. Although there is little doubt he became convinced by the argument at that moment, one may doubt his actual words. If this exlamation, as reported, is a later embellishment, it is a fine one. – anemone Jan 27 '16 at 14:42
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    ... But I would not say that it is a symbol of power, but rather, of acceptance. That is what I meant by self-referential; the form of the exclamation matches the meaning. – anemone Jan 27 '16 at 14:43
  • What if we say, in connection with the Ontological argument, that this expression is a humorous way of saying "Oh God! that I see your presence everywhere". I mean we take it quite literally: God's feet is in his kingly boots which is the universe around us. What do you think? – alex Jan 27 '16 at 16:28
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    @alex I don't know. You see, we're moving from conjecture to guesswork and beyond. What did Russell think? We will probably never know (unless the collocation appears elsewhere, or Russell commented on it on another occasion, etc.). I think you have a point in reading the boots as an anchor, perhaps, in terms of "above"and "below". The humour is there, the exhilaration is there, the lack of respect is there; the metaphors are there too, and would merit an essay. – anemone Jan 27 '16 at 17:20

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