How did the word booting come to be used for "starting" when applied to electronic devices?

I've generally encountered the word applied to computing devices; is it used in connection to simpler electric machines as well?

See also: What's the meaning of "bootstrap"?

  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a question about the English language, not electronics.
    – pipe
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:55
  • @pipe, Bootstrapping is a genuine technique in electronics.
    – Chu
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 15:45
  • @Chu The question is not about the concept, it's about the etymology.
    – pipe
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 15:47
  • How words are derived often gives insight of the underlying process.
    – Chu
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 15:52
  • The answer to this question can be found by typing the word "booting" into the search box on Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booting
    – Dampmaskin
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 16:17

6 Answers 6


This, as has been mentioned, goes back a ways.

The actual usage was associated with a bootstrap loader. This is a small program which (in the early PCs and minicomputers) was entered into the computer via the front panel switches. This method required that the loader be very small.

EDIT - It wouldn't surprise me if mainframes did the same thing, but I have no experience in the field. END EDIT

Once this loader was active, it would load a larger program (typically the OS), and then transfer control to it. In doing so, the PC or mini only used the resources which were part of the computer in the first place, so the phrase "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" came easily to mind, and running the loader was called booting up the machine.

After a while, the hardware evolved to the point that the bootstrap loader became part of the BIOS, and was automatically invoked on power-up. This phase of self-loading was called, by continuity, booting, even though it no longer was obvious what was happening to an external observer.

  • Yep, I many times used the switches and lights on the front of a computer to key in the bootstrap loader. Typically it would be about 16 "words" (16-32 bits each) of very arcane machine language. The instructions would be just enough to start reading the tape/disk that contained the full loader and read the first few dozen instructions. Then (over-simplifying a bit), the full loader would be read over the top of the bootstrap so that when the last instruction of the bootstrap executed control would flow into the full loader. The metaphor of pulling one up by their bootstraps was quite apt.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 18:35
  • (As you suggest, this approach was used on many older mainframes, as well as most "minicomputers" ca 1970-1980. After that most computers, including the IBM PC and it's kin, started having a somewhat larger loader embedded in "read-only memory", making the tricky "bootstrap" sequence unnecessary. But the startup process continued to be called "booting".)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 2:14

By way of further documentation for WhatRoughBeast's answer, I offer two discussions of the origin of the term. First, from Eric Raymond, The New Hacker's Dictionary, third edition (1996):

boot v.n. {techspeak, from 'by one's bootstraps'} To load and initialize the operating system on a machine. This usage is no longer jargon (having passed into techspeak) but has given rise to some derivatives that are still jargon [such as cold boot, warm boot, soft boot, and hard boot]. ...

Historical note: this term drives from 'bootstrap loader', a short program that was read in from cards or paper tape, or toggled in from the front panel switches. This program was always very short (great efforts were expended on making it short in order to minimize the labor and chance of error involved in toggling it in), but was just smart enough to read in a slightly more complex program (usually from a card or paper tape reader), to which it handed control; this program in turn was just smart enough to read the application or operating system from a magnetic tape drive or disk drive. Thus, in successive steps, the computer 'pulled itself up by the bootstraps' to a useful operating state. ...

And from Oxford Dictionary of Computing, sixth edition (2008):

boot To start a computer by turning the power on. Specifically, to invoke a bootstrap, especially to read from backing store the operating system of a computer and load it into the empty memory.


bootstrap ... The term originates from a story told by Baron Munchausen, who boasted that, finding himself trapped and sinking in a swamp, he lifted himself by the bootstraps and carried himself to safety on firm ground.


Quick google search regarding the origin of the word:

Never used the word booting regarding simpler devices myself but that may be because im not a native english speaker

  • 2
    Link only answers are frowned upon
    – cde
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:14
  • I see, my bad then. Still new to the community. Thanks for the heads up. I'll let it stay as it is, since @FiddyOhm already replied in more depth.
    – Pseudoflask
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:20
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bootstrapping
    – JIm Dearden
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:18

"Booting" is a short form of the common English phrase "Lifting oneself by his boot straps". Bootstraps = shoe laces. A whimsical term that suggests an image that you are lifting your whole body by pulling up on your shoe laces & thus obviously defying gravity. Metaphorically, it means getting yourself started from a dead stop.

Typically for smaller devices the words "reset" or "initialize" are used.

  • 3
    The bootstrap is normally behind your foot and != the shoe laces, otherwise you are correct.
    – winny
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:47
  • This doesn't explain why that metaphor is used. What's so special about running a program from ROM before loading the operating system? See WhatRoughBeast's answer.
    – Neil_UK
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 14:56
  • 1
    -1 while it is true it comes from the idiom, the facts are wrong: bootstraps are not shoelaces, and metaphorically, it means to raise one's own station or situation without help from others.
    – Yorik
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 19:42
  • Yeah, the bootstrap is used to pull on the boot. It's typically a loop of leather or fabric rising along the back of the boot. Such bootstraps are still often seen on boots.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 20:04
  • 1
    @Neil_UK Because the term originated before ROM (as we know it) was invented. One started from nothing, just a blank (typically core) memory and had to key in the boot program by hand; as others have mentioned, it was as short as possible. The process (which I went through many many times) for the PDP-8 (circa 1965) is described here
    – tcrosley
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 20:40

I worked on a mainframe (tube technology) computer that was built on-site in 1956 by IBM. There was a metal panel about 18 inches square that had holes to hold metal pins. The pins corresponded to computer instructions. A certain number of pins in a specific set of holes was used to start the computer when power was applied to the system. The panel had open hinges on the bottom so the panel could be attached and swung upward to close - thus starting the computer. The panel was low to the ground, below the knees. Many times, I saw computer operators kick the panel to ensure it closed. They "applied a number 12 brogan" to the door - kicked it - booted it up. That's where I learned why we "booted up" the computer. Is that the origin or boot-up? I don't know, but it always makes me think of that.


On early computers in the 1960s up to 1970s, the initial instructions to read the media that contained the program was wired up on a small patchboard reassembling bootstraps. That's the origin of the word bootstrap or to boot a computer, for short. The term remained but the reason was forgotten.

  • This is just wrong.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 13:10

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