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Okay: The line is characterizing someone as being so dumb that they could not pour piss out of a boot -- even if the instructions were written on the heel.

Just a tremendously clever line and if it does not have the impact today that it did when it was new it's because you've heard it already.

I have seen it attributed to LBJ and that would be something but it is more likely that it is an old Texas saying. One problem is, based on censorship laws, it could not have been in a movie and perhaps not in a book much before LBJ was born in 1908.

But it has a modern feel. Here's why: Prior to the advent of railroads, most goods were made locally -- towns were largely self-sufficient and it is doubtful anything you made or purchased had instructions written on it. Sears catalog might have had such things but that was late 19th century.

So I suspect we will not be able to find any indication that the saying was coined prior to the 20th century. If LBJ had made that up, would he not have made sure to let everyone know this? I sure would.

Now, I could believe that the first part was used -- just someone saying, why, that person couldn't pour piss out of a boot. The refinement could have been added maybe as late as the 1960s -- besides the argument about instructions being written on items, it just feels "edgy."

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  • A 1941 usage example: books.google.it/… – user 66974 Dec 17 '20 at 9:41
  • thanks. this lacks it appears "the instructions on the heal" part – releseabe Dec 17 '20 at 10:36
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    Google books shows a lot of variations, including with "water" rather than "piss"; water may be older as well as politer, although the oldest I could find on Google Books was from The North Carolina Folklore Journal in 1955 or 56: "He hasn't sense enough to pour water out of a boot with directions on the heel" (being a folklore society it's presumably an older saying). This is not an answer to the question, but it may help track the origin. – Stuart F Dec 17 '20 at 10:55
  • note: piss can be a euphemism for alc. cp. booze, buzzed, the latter roughly synonymous with pissed in Brittish. There's an idiom of drinking out of a boot, or a glass made to look like one, traditional at least in German parts (cp. Stiefelreißen), and I would be surprised if it wasn't in Brittain. First site I check for "boot dringing" alleges in an advertisement "The boot drinking vessels actually appeared first in England in the early 19th century." (alpinevillagecenter.com/das-boot). The idiom must be older though, and I have no clue if it relates to yours. – vectory Dec 17 '20 at 13:43
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Informants for the 1965-70 DARE Survey contributed folk saying variants "about a person who seems to you very stupid" (paywalled: DARE, see JJ15a and b) in response to the lead-ins "He hasn't sense enough to _________" and "He doesn't know _________."

Many variants were contributed. In response to the "He hasn't sense enough to" query, one from a Texas informant was

Pour piss out of a boot with the directions printed on the heel.

For the same lead-in, another Texas informant contributed

Pour piss out of a boot if the directions were written on the heel and the toes cut out.

A third informant, from Oklahoma, contributed

Pour piss out of a boot, and if he did, he’d step in it.

In response to the "He doesn't know" query, a Georgia informant contributed

How to pour piss out of a boot with directions written on the heel.

The earliest variant in DARE (paywalled entry) for the generalized "pour piss out of a boot, v phr" is quoted from a 1931 PMLA (45.1305):

He couldn’t pour water outn a boot an’ the directions on the heel.

It wasn't difficult to turn up a "heel directions" variant in a story from 1921:

…they don't know enough to pour sand out of a boot if they had the directions printed on the heel.

From "Fiddler's Hatch" in Wayside Tales and Cartoons Magazine, by F.C. Robertson.

And an unembellished variant as early as 1901:

"Jud," he said, "you ain't got sense enough to pour rain-water out of a boot."

Dwellers in the Hills, Melville Davisson Post.

Although evidence in print was not readily found, it would be reasonable to suppose that both the unembellished and the embellished variants might have been established in local and regional speech before 1900.

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  • Thanks for this but as mentioned I feel strongly that the "directions on the heel" is modern; 1900 feels too early and 1921 is even a little surprising. Prior 1900: just what real-life exemplar of instructions written on the object would have existed? Most devices were too simple to merit instructions at all. BUT: We know that LBJ did not in fact make this up which is really what I wanted to know. – releseabe Dec 22 '20 at 1:43
  • @releseabe, I am perhaps too polite; didn't want the answer to be too obviously a contradiction. But I'll take a little time and fill in at least one of the "directions" exemplars...I'm tending toward patent medicines (snake oil) right now, but I'll look around. – JEL Dec 22 '20 at 1:53
  • I absolutely agree that patent medicines would have instructions but this is different than casting an object of such simplicity as a boot as being mechanical if that makes sense. – releseabe Dec 22 '20 at 1:59

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