Can anyone explain the meaning of "bootstrap" to a Spanish Speaker?

Here is some context:

One aspect of ... (something) ... is the need to bootstrap the configuration.

  • There are several usages in computing. One of them is a concept of a bootstrap compiler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bootstrapping_(compilers) - e.g. a compiler for language X that is written in language X itself. Of course, version 0.0 is usually written in something else first, or else the recursion never stops ;)
    – Job
    Jul 21, 2011 at 20:02

5 Answers 5


Bootstrap refers to a process that is akin to picking oneself up by the bootstraps. The idea is that it is physically impossible to lift yourself by bending over and trying to "lift".

Bootstrapping refers to doing exactly that but in a way analogous to physics. Computing is the most common area I hear the term. A program that bootstraps itself is one that begins with an extremely trivial operation and then uses that to continue the startup process internally. In a strict sense, the program does need help for the very first step but once that happens it doesn't need any external help.

This usage has expanded into less and less strict adherence to the physical notion of lifting and can now be used to refer to anything that is able to sustain itself without external support. My local dictionary defines it as such:

get (oneself or something) into or out of a situation using existing resources

start up (an enterprise), especially one based on the Internet, with minimal resources

This broadens the scope to include processes or situations that required a lot of help to get started. The focus is more on the idea of current autonomy. That being said, the origins of the term still place a tremendous emphasis on the beginning or start of the action.


Dictionary.com defines bootstrap (v) as:

–verb (used with object)
6. to help (oneself) without the aid of others: She spent years bootstrapping herself through college.

It likely derives from the idiom pull oneself up by one's bootstraps, which is a metaphor for succeeding in something using only your own resources.

  • 1
    Dictionary.com has chosen a really atypical example there. No combinations of bootstrap[ping] him/her[self] produce any results in NGram. But there are plenty of results for for bootstrap[ping] it, which accords with my understanding that bootstrapping is normally something done to/by an inanimate object. Most results are from the 70s onwards, obviously, since the inanimate object is usually a microcomputer. Sep 20, 2011 at 20:42
  • 1
    Good point. +1 if I had any votes left!
    – Daniel
    Sep 20, 2011 at 20:44

As indicated by others, and by Wikipedia, the word bootstrap is a metaphoric allusion to the supposedly impossible task of lifting oneself up by pulling on one's own bootstraps.

The word long predated computers, but was eagerly taken up in that context because it fitted nicely with the fact that when a computer (particularly an early one) is first turned on, it doesn't really know how to do anything. It has to load initial instructions telling it how to load further instructions, telling it how to load further instructions,...

Similar "autogenetic" logic applies to bootstrap compilers written in the very computer language they're supposed to be compiling into executable machine code.

Obviously in reality there's effectively a simple "hard-wired" set of instructions to start the process, but the metaphor was just too appealing to resist.

I rarely hear the actual word bootstrap these days, but I still hear people say they're booting (or more often booting up) their PC when they turn it on. And I hear even more people talk of a reboot if they restart it without powering down. I rather suspect that many of those people aren't even aware of the missing -strap.

But the one "apparently correct" form I've never heard is rebootstrap.


"Bootstrap" is from "draw yourself up by your own bootstraps" (citation needed). It's an initialization problem where you don't use outside aid.

For example, suppose you're setting up security in a database—you need a table of access controls (who has what rights), but that table itself needs to have access controls and you can't assign the access controls until you have the table. Circular!

So usually you write some "bootstrapping" code that lets you set up the table without the controls that aren't there yet, and then apply them. That's not a great example, but it's the least-technical one I could come up with.


A collection of wonderful tales about Baron Münchhausen was published at the end of the 18th century in England and in Germany. Although the Baron really existed (Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen ), the stories were completely invented and are wonderful tales of absurd exploits of the hero. In one of those tall stories, the Baron pulls himself (and the horse he is sitting on !) out of a swamp by pulling on his own hair. This is probably the first example of bootstrapping, although in the strict sense no boots are involved. But the idea is there.

Bootstrapping is used metaphorically in Physics and Theoretical Computer Science. Here is the relevant Wikipedia entry.

And, by the way, I wonder how many Physics students could show rigorously ( with obligatory diagrams of the forces involved ) why literal bootstrapping is impossible in Classical Mechanics!


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