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'?
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
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.
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.
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.
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).