Research Boots-out The Etymological Bootlegger Origin Myth
Without a single reference to support the claim, all of the major dictionaries and etymology textbooks assert confidently that the words bootleg, bootlegging and bootlegger all stem from the past practice of illegal alcohol peddlers concealing their product inside their boots. OK - let's try to picture these mythical bootleggers and their modus operandi - they put bottles down their boots so nobody would know they were carrying illicit booze. Have you ever put a bottle down your boot and tried to walk?
Surely, you would have to be at least as large as a fantastical child's nightmare 150 foot pirate with massive galleon boots to stand a chance of makng a profit by sellling bottles of booze that you carry around stuffed down inside of your boots. How much profit could normal sized folk possibly make by stuffing a few tiny bottles of plonk down them for the purposes of transportation and selling? As for not drawing attention to yourself as an illicit product peddler, the whole image is ludicrously Pythonesque.
Clink, stagger, funny walk, clink, clink, clink: "Oh hello Sheriff, nice day for a casual stroll in these massive boots. Who me, got a problem with my legs. No. Why-ever would you think that?" Clink, clink, clink.
Rees's (2002) unevidenced explanation of the bootlegger phrase is not untypical of the obvious fact that nobody seems to have thought the guesswork through with their head outside of a book:
‘ The word arose in the American Far West in the mid-nineteenth century when illegal liquor sales were made to Indians on reservations. The thin bottles of alcohol are said to have been concealed in the vendor’s long boots.'
Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology (1998) also rolls out the same unevidenced booze down the boots story, as does the aptly named Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2012). Moreover, you’ll find the exact same story repeated endlessly in free internet dictionaries such as The New World Encyclopedia:
‘The term "bootlegging" first came into use during Prohibition in the United States, and referred to the black market illegal transport and sale of alcohol. Those wishing to illegally transport alcohol would sometimes hide flasks of liquor in the shanks of a boot. Though the term can now be used to refer to the sale or transport of any illicit goods, it almost exclusively refers to the sale or trade of unauthorized music performances, including video or audio copies of concerts, studio outtakes, or songs never intended for release.’
The Bootleg Mythbust
My own research has not turned up a shred of evidence to support this orthodox booze-down-the-boot 'knowledge' claim. Until published evidence is forthcoming, therefore, we should treat this orthodox explanation as a total myth. So what might be a more likely - evidenced - source of the words bootleg and bootlegger?
Using internet dating to create a published bootleg usage time-line reveals that the word bootleg appears to be a US term used by prohibitionists to associate illicit alcohol with foul tasting bootleg (coffee made from burnt bread). Bootleg coffee was a standard prison ration in the US. The name bootleg by way of its close association with a foul tasting inauthentic beverage consumed by convicts was a perfect name with which to label illicit alcohol and those who illegally sold it.
Timeline for published use of the words bootleg and bootlegger.
- Bootleg 1854 –leather cut for the leg of a boot - used for many things after the boot is made and worn out including (e.g.door hinges for a cabin 1875. and there was no illicit association with the word in the mid-19th century
- Some pistols made in the mid 19th century and used, for example, in 1876 were carried down boots and used illegally. Some such pistols are today named bootleg pistols. However, I can find no evidence that they were so named in the 19th century. If future research reveals that they were so named at the time then that alone would not refute the bootleg coffee source of the word's criminological significance. Because evidence would need to be found that 'bootleg pistols' were (a) associated with criminals and (b) associated with illicit alcohol or (c) bootleg coffee.
- Bootleg – faux coffee made from burnt bread, molasses and hot water- 1876 - standard prison ration
- Bootleggers 1890 – illegally peddling alcohol during prohibition
- Bootleg buckets (prisoners carrying their soup in prison) – 1893
- Drinking a bootleg full of rum 1896 - fiction
- Bootleg liquor – 1902
- Bootleg whisky - 1903
- Bootleg relating to stolen goods (coal) 1907
- Bootleg records 1932 (fiction)
- Bootleg records 1942
- Bootleg manufacturing by nation state 1941 – Germany secretly making weapons of war during 1932 (in 1941 magazine article).
If the words bootleg, bootlegger and bootlegging stem from the practice of illegally trafficking alcohol in bottles or flasks stuffed down the sellers boots then where on this Earth is the published evidence to support this claim, which is so confidently made by the most prestigious etymology dictionaries in the world?
Most tellingly, why was burnt bread coffee called bootleg in the published literature 14 years before the term was used for illicit alcohol? Could it possibly have been some kind of joke about it tasting so bad that it must have been made from the leg of an old boot?
“ ... reach into the pan, grab up a handful and drop it into the tin plate of the victim; besides the beef there was a gray mixture called soup; boiled potatoes, hardtack, and coffee that could have been made of nothing else except an old bootleg.”
Burnt bread coffee (bootleg coffee) may have its origins in the fact that burnt bread was used in the 19th century to purify water - since it is in fact charcoal. It was given to the sick and also placed in the water of rooms where people were sick because it was believed that charcoal would soak up any contamination and impurities (see Peterson 1857). In modern times we still use charcoal filters to purify water. The use of bootleg coffee in 19th century prisons, the military and elsewhere, while perhaps an aquired or never aquired taste, makes perfect sense in terms of seeking to ensure the water was made safe to drink.
Bootleg music became big news in 1942. The mass production of bootleg records followed in wake of Petrillo the musician union’s chief’s imposed ban that lasted 2 years while union member musicians boycotted recording companies in order to eventually secure royalties for musicians. During this period demand for records exceeded supply leading to a noteable rise in the production of bootleg records.
Unless evidence is produced to support what etymologists at least see as the obvious, plausible, compelling but unevidenced bottles of booze down boots explanation, the published literature supports an alternative hypothesis as well as common sense. The Bootleg Coffee Hypothesis is that the US temperance movement and the criminal justice system, implementing their prohibition policies in the USA in 1855 1881 and 1890, labelled illicit alcohol as bootleg and its peddlers as bootleggers as part of a deliberate propaganda exercise to associate illicit alcohol with a foul tasting faux coffee that was known to be consumed by convicts.
The research technique concept that I have coined internet dating (please note that I most certainly never coined the phrase internet dating) , which I employed to bust the bootleg myth, is based almost entirely upon the documents that Google has scanned as part of its on-going Library Project. Therefore, books and other documents that are currently un-scanned by Google, may exist to support the currently unevidenced bottles of booze down the leg story, which is current orthodox knowledge as the source of the words bootleg, bootlegger and bootlegging. If new sources apear to disconfirm the bootleg coffee hypothesis then I will update this blog articlet accordingly with a dated postscript.
Postscript 14th April 2013. At the time of writing, Wikipedia currently, credulously, has it that the phrase '’bootlegging’ is to do with smugglers putting alcohol inside their boots. However, Since Wikipedia is currently unethically engaged in deliberately and systematically plagiarizing the unique results of my original myth-busting work published solely here on Best Thinking, and then deliberately refusing to cite me as the originator of this brand new information that is busting decades old pervasive myths, we should expect Wikipedia to edit-out its daft mistake and yet pretend that Wikipedia editors discovered the new material and information that is published in this unique and original article in order to seek to improve its dreadful reputation for disseminating claptrap. You can see what they are up to here, and read my arguments for why this is a socially toxic practice. Boycott plagiarism!
How to cite (reference) this peer-to-peer articlette: Sutton, M. (2013)The Bootleg Myth is Bust: More Etymology Dysology Uncovered.Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton. BestThinking.com
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Rees, N. (2002) Cassell's Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins. London. Cassell.