Herd words

Cattle

What do capitalists and cattle have in common? In name, quite a lot. Both words derive from the Latin capitale, or principal holdings, which by extension came to mean movable property.

The word's corrupted form, "chatel" or "cattle," originally meant the principal holdings of medieval peasants. Peasants, of course, usually owned cattle, and cattle were the most important possessions in the Middle Ages.

Chatel eventually entered English as "chattel," a current legal term for a piece of property that is movable - furniture, automobiles, and, yes, cows.

The use of "capital" in English first meant "related to the head," as in "head of cattle" perhaps, and then "principal" or "chief." Capital meant "wealth" only when it referred to someone's chief holdings.

Bootstraps

Some styles of boot are equipped with straps or loops sewn inside so the wearer can pull the boot on without assistance. Figuratively speaking, lifting oneself by the bootstraps means succeeding by one's own unassisted effort, often in the face of great obstacles.

Today, "bootstrapping" is a computer term to mean using a short introductory program to get a computer up and running. The popular term "booting up" means starting up a computer system. And when those systems fail us, we lift ourselves up and "reboot."

Bootlegs

Old boots were often large and roomy, covering the whole of the lower part of the leg. For American farmers and cowboys, the tops of these boots were convenient receptacles for a pipe, a pistol, or even a flask. But the bootleg was made famous by the unlicensed liquor sellers who used the tall bootleg to conceal illegal whiskey as they made deliveries. The government agents working in the days of Prohibition (1920s) gave these smugglers a name - "bootleggers."

Since then, bootleg has been used to describe trafficking in books and records that violate copyright laws. And in football, a bootleg is a play where the quarterback fakes a hand-off, hides the ball on his hip, and, like any old-time bootlegger, makes a run for it.

SOURCES: 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson; 'Dictionary of Word Origins,' by Joseph T. Shipley; 'The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology,' by Robert K. Barnhart.

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