Tuesday, 20 August 2013

By the bootstraps

A quickie, to show that I'm getting down to -OO-. [Incidentally, when I search for "*oo*" the software automatically enunciates the first word it finds. This is achoo. My laptop is so blessed by now that it must be in line for a CANONIZATION (or to use a word of the moment, sainthood)]

But what caught my attention was the Macmillan English Dictionary's definition of bootstrapping:
the activity of building a business from nothing, with very little money put in from outside the business 
(There are loads of links there, because that's what the cut&paste got me and I see no point in deleting them. [On the other hand, I see no point in following them either. ])
When I was starting out in the IT world, and asking more questions than the engineers found comfortable – or indeed comprehenisble ['How can he not know that?] '– I wanted to know why computers had to boot.  I was told (and here's what Etymonline has to say) that it was an abbreviation of  bootstrapping. In the days of its first sighting (shortly after I was born, says Etymonline) computer memory was tiny – but I really mean teeny {teenssy-weensy}. This next bit doesn't take the Etymonline line (the computer pulling itself up by the bootstraps) but follows the information of my DEC informant who probably knew what he was talking about (although it might have been a bit of folk etymology peddled to him at Brunel University or wherever...).

He said the computer's memory was too small to handle the complete set of instructions that it had to follow when it started up. So the operator gave it a small bit of the instructions (the metaphorical bootstrap), and at the end of this bit there was an instruction to read the next bit, and so on in a sort of daisy-chain of bits. This bootstrapping was in time reduced to booting (in 1975, says Etymonline, which means it was really cutting-edge slang when I met it in the early '80s).

And so it joins many other metaphors in referring to obsolete technology. The  latest specs for the latest telecomms standards refer to the 'off-hook condition'; the hook was a feature of the earliest telephones, in which the earpiece was a separate part that you would hang up when you were done.. In the commmunications world you sign off at the end of a message, referring to a more leisurely sort of pen-and-ink communication, and indeed a DJ signs off at the end of a show. The meaning of putting something on the back-burner depends on a system of cooking  that is now experienced predominantly in museums. Bootleg liquor was hidden in an accessible but secret place, in the leg of a sort of boot that is not current. And that itself is extended to any illlicit activity (usually, today, involving digital technology)...And so on.

Today, booting is an unquestioned feature of the language, with all sorts of derived words†. More or less any bit of electronics has a boot-sequence, and the solution to any problem (from computers to phones, to video-recorders, digital cameras...) often involves rebooting. This is used again as a further metaphor (in a recursive re-use of the metaphor not unlike 'bootleg'), when it means 'start again from scratch and let's hope it works this time': people talk about rebooting their lives. A film can be called <similar-film>-'rebooted'.

And before the Macmillan English Dictionary's entry for bootstrapping (which as the quote shows, doesn't mention computers) there is an entry for bootstraps [pull yourself up by the ...]:
to become richer or more successful through your own hard work, without anyone else's help
Their (computer-free) definition of bootstrapping gives the impression that these two definitions are so closely related that I could be forgiven for excluding one of them. But I think the whole story behind them means #WVGTbook should have them both (and I can feel a lengthy footnote coming on).

Luckily, the Macmillan English Dictionary does have a separate entry for bootstrap program (so my footnote needn't be that long):
a program that makes a computer's operating system start working

Right. Enough already. 'Quickie' he said. God help us if he writes a Slowie.

Update: 2013.08.21.14:53 Added this note:
† Carrying on with the '-oo-' words, I've discovered what to me is a new example (or perhaps an old one that I heard in the IT world and dismissed as a nine days' wonder (careful with that apostrophe Eugene): coldboot.

Update: 2013.08.22.10:15 Added this note:
... And  hardboot
Update: 2013.09.27.12:45
HeadFooter updated:

Update: 2013.12.12.12:55
Footer updated: 

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources:  nearly 35,000 views**  and  5,000 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1762 views/827 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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