Fill your boots

But a search under “cats and Christmas trees” is definitely worth your time.

Dear Word Detective: I recently listened to a crank call in which an eight year-old Dublin girl attempts to retain the services of a demolitions company in order to destroy her school. It’s amusing both in the sophistication of the girl (most of my crank calls at that age involved rude noises) and the willingness of the company to play along with the gag. (Like most things that have ever produced images or sound, it’s available on YouTube.) During the call, the girl uses the phrase, “Fill your boots, man!” which seems to mean, “Go for it!” I’m curious about the origin of that phrase, and if it’s Irish only. For that matter, where does “crank call” come from? — Greg Charles.

Ah yes, where would we be without YouTube? At this point, I’d be willing to give it a try. Actually it’s not so much the videos that bother me, although I definitely wasn’t invited to the meeting where we decided to give every certifiable crackpot on the planet a digital video camera. But what gives me the wimwams are the viewer comments on the videos, which make a monkey house at feeding time sound like the Algonquin Round Table.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of old-school journalism, I went to YouTube and listened to the call, which apparently took place at least three years ago, meaning the girl is now old enough to vote. Seriously, I doubt that she’s just eight. In any case, I’d actually call this more of a Prince-Albert-in-a-Can “prank” call than a “crank” call. “Prank calls” are jokes or tricks, either on the person answering or on the poor schmuck who winds up with forty-five pizzas on his porch. “Crank calls,” which often begin “longtime listener, first-time caller,” are phone calls from “cranks,” deranged individuals who earn the title by being mentally “bent” or “crooked” like a crank used to work a machine.

“Fill your boots” is definitely not restricted to Ireland, although it does seem most popular in Britain, Canada and Australia. It’s especially associated with football (what is called “soccer” here in the US), where it’s used primarily to mean “score lots of goals and win lots of games.” Owing at least in part to the popularity of that YouTube video, and probably to the current World Cup competition, as well, the internet is awash at the moment in speculation about what “fill your boots” means and where it came from.

I’ve found “fill your boots” used with two basic meanings. It’s used, as in your example, as an exhortation to “Go for it!” or “Get up and get going! Just do it!”  But it’s also used in the more particular sense of “take as much as you want” or “take advantage of the situation” (“There’s an open bar and a free buffet, so fill your boots, boys.”).

There is, unfortunately, no clear answer as to where “fill your boots” came from or originally meant. It is possible, and this is perhaps the most logical of the various alternatives, that “fill your boots” originally simply referred to putting on one’s boots in preparation for doing a task, and, by extension, to being equal to that task. If so, it would be related to the idea of “filling someone’s shoes,” taking another person’s place and being able to do their job.

It’s also been suggested that plundering armies in some unspecified “olden days” would fill their tall boots with loot (which may sound a bit silly but the term “bootleg” does indeed come from the practice of concealing contraband in one’s boots, so it’s not impossible). At the less-plausible end of the scale, there’s the suggestion that back when men wore knee-length boots, a determined drinker in a tavern might reach the point where repeated trips to the loo became tiresome and “filling one’s boots” was an easy alternative. Just how such behavior could possibly translate into “Just do it!” in a positive sense awaits explanation. “Fill your boots” also seems to be a fairly recent phrase, as I haven’t been able to find a use before 1990.

My guess is that the first origin I proposed, that of “put on your boots and get going,” is the source, quite possibly used in a military context as an exhortation to a group of soldiers. The “take all you want” usage would then be an extension of the “Act fast!” connotation of the original phrase.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page